Cruel irony for ICMR DG to say issues flagged by report 'dead' when lakhs died of COVID due to 'misguidance'

Besides the grave accusations levelled in a recent New York Times report, there have been other instances of the ICMR being accused of acting in an ad hoc manner and toeing the government’s line

ICMR DG Balram Bhargava (L), mass cremations during second wave (R)
ICMR DG Balram Bhargava (L), mass cremations during second wave (R)

Rahul Gul

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) finds itself in the eye of a storm following a report carried by The New York Times which said it had deliberately downplayed the threat posed by the COVID pandemic to meet PM Narendra Modi’s ‘optimistic narrative’ to further his political agenda.

However, there have been other instances of the ICMR being accused of acting in an ad hoc manner and toeing the government’s line, as detailed later in this article.

The NYT report, titled ‘As India’s Lethal Covid Wave Neared, Politics Overrode Science’, published on Tuesday, cited government researchers and documents to conclude that ICMR acted unprofessionally, possibly contributing to lull the country into a sense of complacency that led to the devastating second wave of COVID in which millions lost their lives.

It quoted Anup Agarwal, a scientist who worked with ICMR before resigning in October 2020, as saying that when he raised concerns about a ‘supermodel’– a mathematical model to understand how the COVID-19 epidemic might evolve in India – to ICMR director-general Balram Bhargava, he was told it was “none of his concern”.

The ‘supermodel’, published in October 2020 in the ICMR-run Indian Journal of Medical Research, predicted that the epidemic in India had passed its peak in September 2020 and that the country would be able to control the spread of the virus by the end of February 2021 by following the safety protocols already in place.

“Science is being used as a political weapon to forward the government narrative rather than help people,” Agarwal told the New York Times.

Other scientists interviewed by the newspaper said that they would not get promotions or other opportunities if they questioned their senior officials. “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 NYT report stated.

The report highlighted two orders issued by Bhargava that some employees at the ICMR thought were “politically motivated”.

The first, issued in July, called on scientists at a number of institutions to help approve a COVID vaccine in just six weeks, ostensibly to allow PM Modi to announce it in his August 15 address to the nation. “Kindly note that noncompliance will be viewed very seriously,” Bhargava’s directive read.

The second one issued in late July 2020 pertained to withholding data that suggested the coronavirus was still spreading in 10 cities, the article said, citing people familiar with the development. This helped officials incorrectly argue that the coronavirus was not spreading in the country as it did in the United States, Brazil, Britain and France, the report said.

The ‘supermodel’, incidentally, cited Modi’s lockdown earlier in 2020 and said that the country may have reached herd immunity because more than 350 million people had already been infected or developed antibodies.

“Scientists inside and outside the agency picked the study apart. Other countries were nowhere close to herd immunity. Plenty of people in India still hadn’t been infected. None of the study’s authors were epidemiologists. Its model appeared to have been designed to fit the conclusion, some scientists said,” the NYT report said.

“They had parameters which can’t be measured and whenever the curve was not matching, they changed that parameter,” NYT quoted Somdatta Sinha, a retired scientist who studies infectious disease models and who wrote a rebuttal. “I mean, we don’t do modeling like that. This is misguiding people.”

Union Minister of State for Health & Family Welfare Bharati Pravir Pawar had stated in the Rajya Sabha on July 20 that ‘no deaths due to lack of oxygen have been specifically reported by states/UTs’ during the second wave of COVID led to nationwide outrage and a furore in political circles.

As reported by National Herald, it had then emerged that guidelines had been issued to the states by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)-National Centre for Disease Informatics and Research (NCDIR) in May, 2020, when the country was reeling under the first wave of COVID, which categorically said that medical conditions such as Asphyxia (respiratory arrest/failure), among others, should not be mentioned as ‘Cause of Death’.

Cruel irony for ICMR DG to say issues flagged by report 'dead' when lakhs died of COVID due to 'misguidance'

The complete document, titled "Guidance for the appropriate recording of COVID-19 related deaths in India" can be read here, with the relevant portion appearing on Page 6.

Speaking to National Herald, Dr. Ishwar Gilada, an infectious diseases expert who raised the alarm against HIV-AIDS in India back in 1985 and is serving as secretary-general of Organised Medicine Academic Guild (OMAG), a federation of 15 professional associations of post-graduate doctors in India, covering 250,000 consultants, said these guidelines virtually prevented states to report deaths caused by oxygen deprivation.

On 31 May 2019, an ad-hoc Expert Committee of the ICMR published its first report on e-cigarettes, “White Paper on Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems”. Their conclusion recommended a “…complete prohibition on ENDS or e-cigarettes in India in the greater interest of protecting public health”, which contributed to the government’s decision to ban ENDS (Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems), widely regarded as a safe and effective smoking cessation method the world over.

Following this, on August 12, 2019, as many as 62 specialists in nicotine science, policy and practice from around the world had co-authored a rebuttal addressed to DG ICMR Prof Balram Bhargava. This included the now-deceased noted cardiologist Dr KK Aggarwal and Dr (Prof) Atul Ambekar, Chairperson, Addictive Disorder Specialty Section, Indian Psychiatric Society.

The experts pointed out that endorsing tobacco harm reduction and regulating ENDS could present a historical opportunity for India to accelerate the decline in smoking rates, reducing health impact on users and bringing down the financial cost of smoking treatment without any cost to the government.

“The ICMR White Paper fails to consider the substantial body of literature that demonstrates the harm reduction potential of e-cigarettes and its position is not in line with the recommendations of many authoritative health organizations worldwide. From a health perspective, e-cigarettes represent an important tool for smokers to reduce their risk,” they noted.

“Because the White Paper is based on uncritical reporting of the evidence it fails to report a balanced overview of the risk-benefit ratio of these new technologies, and grossly misrepresents the actual evidence base. The Committee’s proposal of banning e-cigarette in India is therefore not justified,” they concluded.

What is a cause of concern is that the Union government is a shareholder in the largest domestic manufacturer of conventional cigarettes, one of the very few such instances in the world. This raised questions about a potential conflict of interest in the ban on e-cigarettes.

The government and state-owned companies together held a 28.64 per cent stake in ITC as of end of June, 2019 end. The Centre had a 7.96 per cent stake through SUUTI, the administrator that manages funds of the erstwhile Unit Trust of India (UTI) on behalf of the government. In addition, many state-owned insurance companies are also shareholders in ITC, with the LIC owning the largest chunk at 16.3 per cent as of June 2019 end.

The General Insurance Corporation has a 1.73 per cent stake, the New India Assurance Company 1.52 per cent, and the Oriental Insurance Company, 1.11 per cent.

Immediately after the announcement on the ban on ENDS in September, 2019 stocks of cigarette manufacturers zoomed to a high. While ITC’s stock ended 1.03 per cent higher at Rs 239.6 on the Bombay Stock Exchange, tobacco companies Godfrey Phillips India Ltd and Golden Tobacco saw their stocks close at Rs 990.95 (rise of 5.55 per cent) and Rs 31 (rise 3.85 per cent), respectively.

The government thus clearly profiteers directly from the cigarette trade, besides earning thousands of crores in taxes on cigarettes.

The Congress, citing the NYT report, has accused the ICMR of “criminal culpability” in trying to fudge India’s COVID-19 data to spin a “false narrative” in favour of the Narendra Modi government, and demanded a criminal investigation against the Prime Minister, former Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, and senior officials of the ICMR.

Responding to a question at a press briefing on Thursday, ICMR Director General Dr. Balram Bhargava said, "This is a provocative, attention seeking article published at a time when India is doing good and our vaccination is excellent and it is diverting attention. All the issues raised are dead ones and probably do not merit any attention."

NITI Aayog Member (Health) Dr. V.K Paul condemned the article. "We actually condemn this type of distorted out of context reporting. This is not desirable and it should not happen," he said.

The question is, in light of such developments, can we anymore lay store on the figures and data disseminated by an hitherto-esteemed institution like ICMR even as the dark clouds of the pandemic continue to hover over the world?

(Views are personal)

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    Published: 17 Sep 2021, 9:45 PM