As criticism pours in, ICMR denies it hid data
The findings relate to the first round of surveys to detect antibodies to the Sars-Cov2 virus, which would indicate that the disease silently spread without people being symptomatic or recorded in disease testing. Known as a serological survey or a sero survey, the study was conducted between May 11 and June 4.Updated: Sep 21, 2020, 00:32 IST
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) defended on Sunday its decision to not disclose disease prevalence data from the 10 cities hit hardest by Covid-19 earlier this summer, a move that was questioned by the scientists involved in the process and members of the country’s task force on the pandemic.
The findings relate to the first round of surveys to detect antibodies to the Sars-Cov2 virus, which would indicate that the disease silently spread without people being symptomatic or recorded in disease testing. Known as a serological survey or a sero survey, the study was conducted between May 11 and June 4.
“The first serosurvey had two parts: first was to determine the status of the country, and the second part was to check the disease status in high transmission zones which were called containment zones or hot spots. The first part was published but the second part has not been formally released, and we don’t really know why,” said one of the 70-plus researchers who was part of the survey, requesting not to be identified.
That the agency suppressed the findings was first reported by The Telegraph newspaper on Sunday.
In a series of tweets on Sunday evening, the ICMR responded to the report, saying: “Containment zones, that refer to a specific geographical area where positive cases of coronavirus are found, are dynamic in nature. They do not fit into nationally representative sampling. ICMR has been continuously communicating with the respective state authorities. The findings of the previous survey from the dynamic containment zones were communicated to the states for further action…”
The agency added: “To further aid in developing state intervention plans, following the ICMR survey, states have also conducted their zone/city-specific surveys…”
A member of the national task force on Covid-19 said the agency was being reluctant in sharing full data with the panel. “They shared the rural data but did not give out details of the urban data; initially it was said that they were awaiting results from certain cities that hadn’t been received. Then it just kept getting delayed and finally people actually forgot about it. Some parts of the survey were released during a press briefing, but that’s about it,” said this person, asking not to be named.
Samples were picked up from hot spot areas in 10 cities: Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Kolkata, Delhi, Hyderabad, Indore, Jaipur, Mumbai, Pune and Surat. According to the Telegraph report, the prevalence in these ranged from 15 to 48%. Some of the researchers who were involved in the study said the cities in Gujarat were among those with the highest disease prevalence, particularly Ahmedabad.
“What we know is that exposure in Ahmedabad and Surat was higher even though the entire data set has not been shared with us so far. Whether it has been done for political reasons as they didn’t want certain cities to be seen in a poor light or for administrative reasons so that there is no panic, we do not know,” said the task force member quoted above.
Dr Dileep Mavlankar, head of Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar, said: “It’s high time that we stop being afraid of the disease, as the mortality is low. We know how to manage the disease effectively. The disease pattern tells us that in low transmission areas cases have gone up and cases are more or less stable in areas where high transmission was seen earlier. A situation like in Italy hasn’t arisen here, so we can afford to take calculated risks.”
Dr DCS Reddy, one of the authors of the paper based on first sero survey published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, said, “The committee I chair is an advisory committee and our job has been to design the study. Why wasn’t the data published or when will it be published can only be answered by the implementing agencies such as ICMR or the individual states. It’s not our job.”