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Home / Columns / The intersection of politics and science, writes Chanakya

The intersection of politics and science, writes Chanakya

The two most powerful tools in any country’s armoury, when it comes to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, are data and science, and political leaders through the centuries have had an uncomfortable relationship with both.

columns Updated: Jul 05, 2020 06:03 IST
Chanakya
Chanakya
Hindustan Times
A priest and a labourer wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at a crematorium, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease in New Delhi, India, July 3, 2020.
A priest and a labourer wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at a crematorium, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease in New Delhi, India, July 3, 2020.(REUTERS)

The best book Chanakya read this year was A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane by Samanth Subramanian.

There is chapter in the book devoted to Trofim Lysenko, and Haldane’s reaction to the controversy surrounding the former’s work. Lysenko was a Soviet biologist who saw science through the filter of communism, and, in the late 1940s, came up with a controversial theory of plant genetics and evolution that contradicted almost everything that had been proven in the two areas until then.

Yet, when presented with an opportunity to criticise Lysenko and his work, Haldane, himself a socialist, demurred. Subramanian writes about this — Haldane’s “greatest moral crisis” as he terms it — in great detail in the book. The Lysenko incident gave rise to the term Lysenkoism, first only specifically used to describe the not-backed-by-science plant genetics and evolution doctrine advocated by Lysenko. But subsequently, like other personality-inspired nouns, it was used to describe science (usually incorrect science), shaped by a particular ideology.

The response of countries and leaders around the world to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) is a good time to revisit the stories of Haldane and Lysenko (and read Subramanian’s fine book). The two most powerful tools in any country’s armoury, when it comes to fighting Covid-19, are data and science, and political leaders through the centuries have had an uncomfortable relationship with both.

As evident in the story of Lysenko, and Haldane’s subsequent equivocation, politics, through the years, has sought to give science a spin that suits its own devices (or scientists themselves have been too happy to give science a spin on request). The less said about data in this context, the better.

There has always been a relationship between politics and science. The two have been at odds sometimes but mostly, through history, they have built a symbiotic relationship, each furthering the cause of the other.

Two incidents of the past fortnight offer insights into how this plays out in India.

The first is the not-so-curious incident of Patanjali Ayurved’s Coronil. It was initially touted as a cure for Covid-19 (the world’s first); then, when it turned out that the clinical study wasn’t all that clinical, as an immunity booster. India’s Ayush ministry (named after Ayurveda, Siddha, Yunani, and Homeopathy) was quick to ask Patanjali to stop advertising its product and show that it worked, but eventually allowed the company to sell Coronil as an immunity booster. There was no punitive action for a move that does the respected and ancient field of Ayurveda a huge disservice, nor an attempt to get the company to change a very misleading name.

Still, given that Patanjali’s Baba Ramdev’s pitch of Ayurveda and nationalism (he continued to insist well into the week that much of the opposition to his product came from Big Pharma) sits well with the government’s own beliefs, it is a surprise that the Ayush ministry even acted against him.

The second is the very curious incident of a letter written by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)’s director-general (D-G) Balram Bhargava on Thursday (it was reported on Friday) to the heads of institutions selected as a test site for clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine candidate being developed by ICMR and Bharat Biotech.

Dr Bhargava is a respected and highly qualified medical professional with a string of alphabets after his name. Yet, as head of India’s apex medical research body, he had no compunctions in writing that “it is envisaged to launch the vaccine for public use latest by 15 August 2020”. For good measure, the letter had two phrases in bold — “top priority projects which is being monitored at the topmost level of the Government” and “non-compliance will be viewed very seriously”.

The letter exhorts the people to whom it is addressed to start enrolling people for clinical trials by July 7and to “fast-track all approvals related to the initiation of a clinical trial.”

It is difficult to envisage a man of science — and ICMR’s D-G is definitely one — writing a letter that so blatantly disregards science. Sure, there is near-consensus (tinged with heavy optimism) that the 10-and-half years it takes to develop a vaccine can be crashed to a year or year-and-a-half, but to do it in 45 days is perhaps going to require clinical testing and biological processes that haven’t been invented.

ICMR’s spokesperson subsequently issued a clarification that the letter was meant to get people moving, suggesting that the bit about the August 15 launch shouldn’t be taken seriously (actually, no one did), but there was no explicit statement on this.

A statement did come the day after, on Saturday, but it didn’t talk about the launch at all, said the aim was to cut red tape and asked commentators not to “second guess ... the best of Indian medical professionals and scientists” but was again silent on the deadline. Surely, the statement implied, ICMR knows what it is talking about. Well, one can only hope that it does.

The symbolism of the August 15 (it is India’s Independence Day) deadline shouldn’t be lost on anyone — but it is a symbolism that should matter to politicians, not scientists. And when it comes to vaccines, a matter of life and death really, symbolism and politics should give way to science.

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