INSACOG warned government early March cases & deaths could rise exponentially because of variants: Director, CCMB, Rakesh Mishra

By Karan Thapar

INSACOG warned the government early March cases & deaths could rise exponentially because of variants: Director, CCMB, Rakesh Mishra

In a bold and outspoken interview, one of India’s foremost scientists and a member of INSACOG has confirmed that in early March INSACOG formally warned the government of its “high concern” that new and more contagious variants of Coronavirus were taking hold of the country and, as a result, it was very likely cases and deaths would increase exponentially.

Dr. Rakesh Mishra, the Director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, and an important member of INSACOG, the Consortium of 10 National Laboratories handling genome sequencing, said: “This concern was raised … it was a kind of warning that we are heading towards danger”. With this Dr. Mishra has confirmed the critical first part of a major story released by Reuters on Saturday which has so far been largely ignored by the Indian media.

The interviewer’s office gave this information in a press release and said:”In a 45-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Dr Mishra said INSACOG’s concerns were conveyed directly to Dr. Sujeet Kumar Singh, the Director of the National Centre for Disease Control, to whom INSACOG reports. He added “I think it went to the Health Secretary” and then, on further questioning, said it’s impossible to believe the Prime Minister would not have been told. As he put it, INSACOG was set up by the government to keep it informed and it’s hard to believe such a warning would not have been communicated to the head of the government.

Speaking to The Wire, Dr. Mishra said “it was a high concern and there’s no doubt about it”. He added, “we were very very concerned”. He said INSACOG was “dreading something bad would happen”.

Asked to specify what INSACOG’s fears and concerns were in early March when it warned the government, Dr. Mishra said “variants were very prolific”. INSACOG was worried about “exponential growth” of cases which he said would be “very dangerous” with “much more mortality”. Dr. Mishra also said that exponential growth in cases would provide opportunities for the virus to mutate and that could possibly lead to mutations that are not just more infectious but also more immune resistant,  thus undermining the vaccine program that is underway.

Dr. Mishra told The Wire that he has no reason to doubt the Reuters story when it claims Sujeet Kumar Singh, the Director of NCDC, clearly warned the government urgent action was needed. In the Reuters report Dr. Singh is quoted to have said: “It was highlighted very very clearly that unless drastic measures are taken now it will be too late to prevent the mortality which we are going to see”. Dr. Mishra told The Wire he has no reason to doubt Dr. Singh would have said this.

Asked about the second part of the Reuters story that the government ignored or did not act effectively in response to INSACOG’s warning, Dr. Mishra told The Wire: “I’m as anxious as you about the government’s response”. Under questioning, he agreed the government “didn’t do enough”. He repeated that in March it was “very very clear there is a real danger and a threatening situation”.

Dr. Mishra said the government kept talking about doing more testing and more RT-PCR tests, in particular. He seemed to suggest that was the full extent of the government’s response to INSACOG’s warning. He even raised the question “why were 50 people permitted for weddings? 5 would be enough”.

Dr. Mishra added “the system failed to imagine the problem could be so high (big)”.

In The Wire interview, Dr. Mishra was specifically asked about 4 or 5 developments that happened after INSACOG’s warning of early March. First, he was asked whether it was right for political rallies, with tens or hundreds of thousands of people, to take place in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam. He was also asked whether it was proper for shahi snans with two or three million people to take place in March and April. He bluntly said: “This was not acceptable”. He said “These things should be postponed or delayed”.

Dr. Mishra was questioned about comments made by the Health Minister of Assam (Himanta Biswa Sarma) that the people of Assam do not need to wear masks. He said: “Ministers saying don’t wear masks is not acceptable”.

Asked also about the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand saying faith in God and the power of Mother Ganga would protect people at the shahi Snans, Dr. Mishra said: “No one on public platforms should say this”.

Asked specifically about the Prime Minister’s comment on the 17th of April, when Coronavirus cases were growing by 260,000 cases a day when the Prime Minister applauded the size of the crowd at a political rally in Bengal, Dr. Mishra said: “That’s very unfortunate”. He repeated “rallies should have been called off”. More ominously, he said, “we will see the outcome of such rallies in a few week’s time”.

Asked about the Home Minister’s response to questions at a press conference during the Bengal campaign that suggested Mr. Shah does not believe political rallies are responsible for the rising Coronavirus cases, Dr. Mishra said “he was not given proper feedback or information”.

Finally, Dr. Mishra said the BJP’s plan to hold a nationwide dharna tomorrow, May the 5th, would be a terrible mistake. He said the top priority at this moment is to save lives. He pointedly added, “we can settle our scores later”.

Speaking to The Wire about the two variant strains spreading in India, Dr. Mishra said 80 to 90% of the cases in Punjab and 40% of the cases in Delhi are caused by the UK variant (B.1.1.7).

Speaking to The Wire about the so-called double mutant (B.1.617), Dr. Mishra said its definitely more transmissible than the original virus but less infectious than the UK variant.

Dr. Mishra made a point of saying that laboratory tests have shown that both Covishield and Covaxin are effective against both the UK variant and the double mutant.

Finally, Dr. Mishra said “more strict measures” are needed in response to the present crisis. He said “something closer to a major lockdown is required”.

The above is a paraphrased precis of Dr. Rakesh Mishra’s interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire. Although recounted from memory it’s not inaccurate. However, there’s a lot more in the interview than has been covered by this press release. In the interview Dr. Mishra also talks about how INSACOG’s warning of early March should have led the government to take steps to increase hospital beds, ICUs, ventilators, and, most importantly, oxygen. He said dismantling infrastructure set up to handle the first wave was a mistake. Dr. Mishra also spoke about the government’s need to communicate effectively with the country.

Please see the full interview for a proper appreciation of Dr. Rakesh Mishra’s views. As mentioned earlier, he is not just the first but the only member of INSACOG and the only top scientist to confirm the Reuters story that the government was formally warned in early March that cases could increase exponentially. Dr. Mishra’s answers also suggest he accepts the second part of the Reuters story that the government ignored INSACOG’s warning or, at least, did not act on it effectively.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)



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