In a major development that could make the timely diagnosis of infectious diseases possible, Kerala is all set to open its first virology institute in Thonnakkal, Thiruvananthapuram. The state government had announced the setting up of the institute during the outbreak of the Nipah virus in Kozhikode that had claimed 17 lives in May 2018.
The institute is particularly important for Kerala considering the number of people living outside the state, allowing high likelihood of transmitting viruses from outside. The institute will function under the guidance of the State Institute for Science and Technology. The first phase will be completed by the end of February.
“The institute will lay emphasise on research; not just diagnosing a virus and suggesting treatment, but we should also understand why human beings are so vulnerable to such viruses. We also need to have measures by which we will be able to stop infections from spreading by making the human body much more resistant,” GM Nair, Coordinator of the Institute, told TNM.
He added, “We need active control measures to produce immunisation vaccines. The major strength of the institute will be that it will be devoted to experimenting and analysing virus per se and the focus will also be on vectors. The unique feature of Kerala is that we have a consistently moving people. This makes the state vulnerable in the case of viruses that are not borne here. Also an understanding of what kind of virus is also important, viruses can change their genetic make-up. Even if it is brought in from outside, it could have modified itself.”
The institute will have around eight departments.
The state currently depends on the National Virology Institute in Pune to get samples examined with regard to infectious diseases. During the Nipah outbreak, the absence of a Virology Institute in the state was widely discussed.
“Viral diseases are very prevalent in Kerala. This may be attributed to a number of reasons. We have a large population of migrants in the state. Several Keralites work in other countries. Frequent travelling between different places can lead to exposure to different viruses and diseases. In a state like Kerala which is densely populated, diseases do have a tendency to spread rapidly,” said health expert Dr B Iqbal.
“Viral diseases behave differently in different parts of the world. For example, dengue fever leads to a high mortality rate in the state, so clinical study is necessary to understand how these diseases will affect people and how the virus can mutate here. We had identified the need for a virology institute as early as in 1996. An infectious disease and virology institute was set up in Alappuzha but didn’t become functional,” he added.
The government has sanctioned Rs 202 crore towards setting up the institute. But according to officials, at least Rs 500 crore will be needed in the first five years and it may necessitate looking for external funds.
“The institute will focus on early diagnosis of viral diseases, improving our understanding of pathogens and planning preventive measures. It will be an institute of international standards capable of developing measures to tackle outbreaks,” says a post on the Kerala Chief Minister’s Facebook page.
The completion of the first phase of the 28,000 sq ft building will be completed in the next two weeks. The Uralungal Labour Contract Society is leading the construction of the prefab building. The work of the second phase of 80,000 sq ft has also been progressing under the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation.