Top Indian scientists join global fight against coronavirus
The National Institute of Immunology in Delhi will sequence the virus to see whether the one infecting travellers from different parts of the world is the same or has undergone changes.Updated: Mar 30, 2020 15:29 IST
India’s top research organisations are taking the Covid-19 challenge head on, with the Indian Institute of Science, the National Institute of Immunology, and the Translational Health Science Technology Institute, among others, working on vaccine development and therapeutics.
The National Institute of Immunology in Delhi will sequence the virus to see whether the one infecting travellers from different parts of the world is the same or has undergone changes. “The virus changes. By the time you may develop a vaccine it could have changed form. It’s important for us to understand how its changing. First is to see if people who have travelled from Italy, Germany, China, US, etc are infected with the same strain. That can happen through ribonucleic acid (RNA) sequencing. We saw such mutations during the H1N1 outbreak,” said Amulya K Panda, director, National Institute of Immunology (NII). NII is also studying what protein the virus is made up of -- something which will be crucial to vaccine development.
The team will also analyse blood samples (once they have access) of some of the 46 people who have recovered, to analyse antibodies that protected them. “Remember that every third vaccine used globally is developed in India. We will be able to deliver. But it’s a matter of time and safety. We will definitely get the virus but if our facilities are not well-contained, we will end up spreading the infection. It is lethal stuff. We have a BSL 3 [Biosafety level 3] laboratory where these tests can be conducted,” Panda added. Biosafety level 3 laboratories are high containment labs aimed at ensuring the virus is contained and does not infect lab workers .
Panda said it is difficult to give a clear timeline for the development of these antidotes. “We have to wait for things to cool down and see what’s possible when.” Till a vaccine and therapeutics emerge, massive scale social distancing is the only option to control the spread of the infection, he added.
The Indian Council of Medical Research’s National Institute of Virology has already isolated the strains of SARS-CoV-2 from three infected persons who travelled from Wuhan and found it to be very similar the virus isolated in Wuhan. These were the first three infections in India, dating back to January.
The Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) is working on a diagnostic kit which has a timeline of only a few months. Potential therapeutics, which may take more than a year, include repurposing of existing drugs, studying new chemical compounds, designing new compounds based on the structure of the virus and using monoclonal antibodies from infected patients to treat new patients.
“The development of a vaccine may take whole of next year depending on access to samples. The work on developing a diagnostic kit is also on hold now because THSTI will need an import license to get the virus which can happen after the lockdown is lifted,” said Gagandeep Kang, director of THSTI.
The office of K Vijayraghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, issued a memorandum on March 21 which said that national research laboratories are permitted to carry out clinical testing for Covid-19. They are also permitted to access samples from any government approved clinical testing site subject to ethical approval for such research. Labs with BSL3 and BSL3 + facilities are also permitted to culture the virus. Hospitals have been asked to share samples with such labs. Kang said over the phone that her organisation will be attempting to tie up with a hospital in Delhi NCR to use samples for research.
At the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru, a group of at least 30 researchers have come together to prepare research proposals to investigate aspects of molecular epidemiology (study of causative, protective, genetic susceptibility or predisposing factors) and host-pathogen interactions (how the virus sustains in humans). These proposals will be submitted in the coming week to funding agencies for funding to begin research activities on Covid-19, said Umesh Varshney, Professor, Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology and Chair, Division of Biological Sciences at IISc. To begin with, IISc will need a host of approvals from the government which it has already applied for. IISc is also starting work on vaccine development and Covid 19 testing using ICMR approved reagents. “We are very much concerned about the Covid-19 pandemic…we are happy to extend our expertise to the approved labs for Covid-19 testing,” Varshney said in an email.
The International Centre for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology (ICGEB), Delhi, will collaborate with the ICGEB, Trieste (Italy), where substantial progress has been made on diagnostics and therapy, Dinakar M Salunke, Director of ICGEB said.
Experts from the National Centre for Biological Sciences were not reachable for a comment but the institute’s website states that it is contributing to national efforts on Covid-19 with immediate and medium-term solutions like disease surveillance, modelling, use of genomics and bioinformatics to understand the evolution of the virus and map disease susceptibility.