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Scientists at Genome India propose study of Covid’s genetic dimension

The ambitious Genome India Project, the government of India-project tasked with mapping India’s genetic diversity, had just got off the ground this year when the pandemic shut the country down.

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath. (Express photo)

The Bengaluru-based team of scientists at the heart of the new Genome India Project, which aims to create a database of the diverse genes of Indians, has submitted a fresh proposal to Delhi to examine samples of a thousand Covid-19-infected Indians. The team wants to study and develop more insights into how this new viral disease, resistance to it and susceptibility might have a genetic component.

Says Professor Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, neurologist and Professor of the Centre for Neuroscience at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, who is the key person in this multi-institute project, “The debate is no longer if it is genetics or the environment. A person’s immune system is h/er response to the environment, but immunity has aspects that relate to the genetic component too. We have a small consortium of institutes which do serological tests, so if we can get all the ethical clearances and get access to the blood samples of infected individuals, we can look at the genetic determination of infectability.”

The ambitious Genome India Project, the government of India-project tasked with mapping India’s genetic diversity, had just got off the ground this year when the pandemic shut the country down.

Also read | Interview with Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath: ‘Despite Covid, our timelines for Genome India project won’t be affected’

The Genome India Project is supposed to collect and work with 10,000 samples of healthy individuals, but stage two was always meant to be about another batch of 10,000 of Indian samples with diseases, of three broad categories — non-communicable diseases like cardio-vascular and diabetes, mental illnesses and cancer.

Ravindranath says, “We are aware of the problems there and are prepared about building it slowly, we need proper phenotypic and mapping of different facts of the diseases.”

A sum of Rs 238 crore was allotted by the Department of Biotechnology for the Genome India Project in January. With the lockdown coming into force shortly afterwards, the project just about managed to organise workshops of scientists from MIT and Harvard in Gujarat between March 3 and 6.

Ravindranath says, “IISc has now partially opened and we have started sequencing. During the two-month shutdown, we have been working with individuals identified for the samples on the phone, talking to them and laying the basis for all the computational work and analysis we would need to do when the samples come in and we resume collections. We will resume collections only after Primary Health Care workers there give us the go-ahead. There is no rush.”

Explained | What will the project seek to determine, why is the information important, and what are the various challenges ahead?

The Genome India Project involves 20 public institutions all over India and as reported by The Indian Express on February 7, the central government is keen to get this nationwide project going to sequence the Indian gene and push research in medicine.

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