Quick, quality research has been key to fighting Covid, which was unknown to science when it hit the world. Why did India, though not lacking in research talent, achieve so little, and can this change?

First, it’s important to know global best practices of Covid research

So, how has India fared?

Overall, poorly.

It is difficult however to identify a metric that can be used to exactly evaluate this. A search in PubMed, a commonly used database for health research, shows that about 5-10% of the papers are India related. However, this is not a true measure of use of research in our pandemic response.

There are some examples of Indian research in the global context, including the development of Covaxin, participation in global trials and studies. Many studies led by Indian scientists and institutions were conducted during the pandemic including those on effectiveness of plasma therapy, diagnostic tests etc.

However, there cannot be any doubt that we neither prioritised research, nor made a concerted effort to coordinate research and finally, failed to effectively translate research to action.

Is it because we lack a health research ecosystem?

Not really. India has a large network of institutions with global footprint in health research and a huge captive clinical and epidemiological material (samples and patients). India has invested well in creating a health research ecosystem.

The problem is we did not capitalise on the strengths of these institutions. For example, ICMR, rather than being tasked with research related to Covid, was involved in the management of pandemic response – a task for which it neither has a mandate nor the capacity.

What should change?

We need to foster teamwork in science. What should have been a team event became an individual race and everyone lost. A first-past-the-post system with a winner-takes-it-all rule, does not work in emergencies. We should have made research consortiums looking into specific Covid issues, say, diagnostics, therapeutics, social impact.

The promotion of research during a pandemic requires speedy clearances, while maintaining the integrity of the process to inspire confidence. At times, it was either too fast or too slow, giving the impression of a hidden agenda.

We need better enunciation of public-private partnership models in health research. This makes a strong case for governments to actively invest in the research process.

Is GoI not open to listening to scientific voices?

Science has always had to fight religion or the state for its place in society. This fight is not specific to Covid, nor to India, nor to present times. Research, philosophically speaking, is a search for truth. All outputs of publicly funded research should be in public domain. I join other scientists in expressing concern on the failure of government agencies to put in place mechanisms for more open and transparent data sharing.

What’s the future of Covid research in India?

The pandemic is still not over and research agendas in a pandemic change with time as the pandemic evolves. ICMR has recently released a Covid-specific call for proposals on pre-identified topics. This represents a welcome course correction and hopefully will lead to establishment of research consortiums.

Source: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com


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