The Department of Biotechnology, under the Ministry of Science And Technology, is the nodal point for all the science-based solutions India is looking for in the battle against COVID-19. Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, speaks to The Indian Express on the road ahead.
What role is the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) playing on a day-to-day basis as India wades through this crisis?
Call it day-to-day, hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute. DBT is central to all the science around COVID. Healthcare solutions, diagnostics, vaccines or therapeutics, we are the nodal agency, and this is not just about funding. COVID has set a very clear example of how the government is looking at science and its role of facilitation. We are bringing the country’s scientists on various platforms, institutions, clearing regulatory pathways. We enable coordination. BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Investment Council) has been central to assisting start-ups and connecting them to investors and investments. Now, with the economic crisis, start-ups are facing more challenges and our role has become more critical.
There are 16 proposals under consideration for vaccines, diagnostics and other COVID-related solutions. Could you elaborate on them?
We invited proposals and received about 500 so far, for all aspects of managing diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines and other resources. There are two proposals which will look at vaccines. We are continuing to screen other proposals. There are 16 in the first tranche that has been cleared. They include plasma therapy models, proposals for vaccines.
Anything more on indigenous testing?
DBT has supported a number of start-ups and research groups. Two of our indigenous start-ups are now approved for manufacturing PCR kits, and in addition, a number of them are developing Rapid Antibody Tests. We have supported a national manufacturing facility at AMTZ (Andhra Pradesh Medtech Zone) Visakhapatnam for kits and ventilators.
There are only two sequences of the virus that India has shared with the world’s database?
We have shared about nine sequences with the world database. Large scale sequencing efforts are starting now. Currently we have no conclusions about what we have in India and if the virus has mutated, but ICMR is looking into it, we are using the global data of thousands of sequences.
Those institutes apart, there are six other DBT institutes involved in the work. National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG) in Kalyani (near Kolkata), Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), Bengaluru, Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar (ILS) and Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram (RGCB) are playing a key role along with CCMB in Hyderabad and IGIB in New Delhi in the sequencing of the genome of Sars-Cov-2.
In terms of opening the lockdown, what do you see when you look ahead?
That comes under the remit of the Health Ministry, I have nothing to say.
On a different note, where is Genome India currently?
Collection of samples is not happening at the moment. But all other work in the laboratories, in the planning, computational models, continues as before.
Genome India’s second stage was meant to be collecting samples from the population which are ‘disease-based’. Any changes to that plan, a bid to fast-track the disease-based collections now, in the wake of COVID?
No, nothing yet. We will get there as we had planned.