India is working on a plan to effectively combat public health emergencies and disease outbreaks in future, according to people familiar with the matter, even as WHO on Monday announced it will be identifying pathogens that could cause future outbreaks and pandemics.
Under the Pradhan Mantri Ayushman Bharat Health Infrastructure Mission (PM-ABHIM) that prime minister Narendra Modi launched on October 25, 2021, the government aims to fill critical gaps in health infrastructure, surveillance and, health research to be able to better manage Covid-19 like pandemics or health crises in the future.
“Strengthening research in the field is a crucial aspect as zoonotic diseases are going to be big in years to come. Not just enhancing the lab network, efforts under the scheme will also be made to create adequately trained manpower to perform cutting edge research,” said a senior health ministry official, requesting anonymity.
“The capacity of high-tech research laboratories housed in institutes such as National Institute of Virology-Pune, National Centre for Disease Control, New Delhi etc. will not only be enhanced but these will also do the job of mentoring as a network of integrated laboratories will be set up at the district level,” this person added.
WHO will be updating the list of priority pathogens—agents that can cause outbreaks or pandemics—to guide global investment, research and development, especially in vaccines, tests and treatments, the UN health body announced.
It is convening at least 300 scientists who will consider the evidence on over 25 virus families and bacteria, as well as “Disease X”, a serious international epidemic caused by an unknown pathogen.
The experts will recommend a list of priority pathogens that need further research and investment. The process will include both scientific and public health criteria, as well as criteria related to socioeconomic impact, access, and equity, it said.
The network of laboratories that the Indian government plans to create in all 730 districts of the country, will optimise access to laboratory services, quality assurance efforts, cost-effectiveness, and efficient use of human resources. The objectives are to strengthen the infectious and non-infectious disease surveillance system, provide accurate data for enhancing timely response for disease outbreak, provide mentorship and serve as diagnostic hub for labs attached to community health centres, and support laboratory investigations of outbreaks.
“We will be closely watching the progress made by WHO on this front as eventually the aim is the same — to be future ready for any such health emergencies. We do not know what we would be dealing with in future; for all you know it could be worse than what we saw in Covid-19, which is technically not over yet even after nearly three years of having started,” said a senior scientist at a government institute who asked not to be identified.
Michael Ryan, executive director, WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said, during the launch on Monday: “Targeting priority pathogens and virus families for research and development of countermeasures is essential for a fast and effective epidemic and pandemic response. Without significant R&D investments prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would not have been possible to have safe and effective vaccines developed in record time.”
WHO chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan said in a statement, “This list of priority pathogens has become a reference point for the research community on where to focus energies to manage the next threat.”
Apart from India’s health ministry, departments of biotechnology and science and technology, are also working on projects to strengthen R&D related to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
Department of biotechnology and Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) launched the “DBT –BIRAC COVID-19 Research Consortium” as part of the government’s comprehensive efforts to facilitate development of indigenous research solutions to tackle Covid-19.
“A lot of research projects took shape to combat Covid-19 and the capacity that has been developed as a result will further strengthen overall research and development segment for future use. This pandemic has taught a lot and now we have to make best use of the learnings,” said a senior scientist in department of biotechnology who asked not to be named.
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