New Delhi: As India braces for a possible third wave of COVID-19, skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboard, revealing how political will overruled scientific studies about the growth projection and pattern of the pandemic, misleading Indians and the world community into believing that India had reached herd immunity.
According to a detailed report in New York Times, in September 2020, eight months before a deadly COVID-19 second wave struck India, government-appointed scientists downplayed the possibility of a new outbreak. Previous infections and early lockdown efforts had tamed the spread, the scientists wrote in a study, which neatly served the Indian government’s two main goals: restart India’s stricken economy and kick off campaigning for his party in state elections.
The report further reveals how a physician (who has now left the country) working at ICMR, which reviewed and published the study, was muffled into silence by his senior for believing that its conclusions would lull the country into a false sense of security.
In the wake of the devastating second wave, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, many in India are asking how the Modi government missed the warning signs. Part of the answer, according to current and former government researchers and documents reviewed by The New York Times, is that senior officials forced scientists at elite institutions to downplay the threat to prioritise political goals.
“Science is being used as a political weapon to forward the government narrative rather than help people,” said Dr Anup Agarwal, 32, who used to work at ICMR, was quoted as saying.
Senior officials at ICMR suppressed data showing the risks, according to the researchers and documents. They pressured scientists to withdraw another study that called the government’s efforts into question, the researchers said and distanced the agency from a third study that foresaw a second wave. The ICMR played a major role in shaping perceptions. India has not released granular data on the virus’s spread, hampering the ability of scientists to study it. In that vacuum, the agency offered projections that often steered debate.
Politics began to influence the agency’s approach early last year, according to scientists familiar with its deliberations, the report added.
In June 2020, a study concluded by ICMR that the lockdown imposed in April had slowed but would not stop the virus’s spread. Within days, the authors withdrew it. ICMR clarified in a tweet that the study’s modelling had not been peer-reviewed and “does not reflect the official position of ICMR.”
One of the study’s authors, along with a scientist familiar with it, said the authors had withdrawn it amid pressure from the agency’s leaders, who questioned its findings and complained that it had been published before they had reviewed it. The move was unusual, the scientists said, adding that the agency’s leadership would typically adjust problematic language rather than demand a paper be withdrawn, New York Times reported.
Then in July 2020, there was a directive calling on scientists at a number of institutions to help approve, in just six weeks, a coronavirus vaccine developed by Indian scientists, whereas regulators in other countries were still months away from approving their own vaccines. Another directive issued in late July 2020, forced scientists to withhold data that suggested the virus was still spreading in 10 cities, according to emails and scientists familiar with the work, the report added.
Last autumn, an agency-approved study, known as the Supermodel in India wrongly suggested that the worst was over.
Known as the Supermodel in India, the study projected that the pandemic would ebb in India by mid-February. None of the study’s authors were epidemiologists. Its model appeared to have been designed to fit the conclusion, some scientists said.
One study, published in January 2021, did predict a second wave. Published in the journal Nature, it said that such an outbreak could strike if restrictions were “lifted without any other mitigations in place” and called for more testing. One of its authors worked for the I.C.M.R., but its leadership pressured him to remove his affiliation with the agency from the paper, said people familiar with the matter.
The second wave struck in April. With hospitals overwhelmed, Indian health officials recommended treatments that the government’s own scientists had found to be ineffective.
One was blood plasma. Dr. Agarwal and his colleagues had concluded months before that blood plasma did not help COVID-19 patients. The agency dropped the recommendation in May. The government still recommends a second treatment, the Indian-made malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, despite scientific evidence that it is ineffective.
Current and former agency scientists said they didn’t speak out because they considered the treatments politically protected, the report added.