Kerala set up the Institute of Advanced Virology in 2019 in the wake of the 2018 Nipah outbreak to ensure timely diagnosis of infectious diseases.

A health worker wearing protective gear testing a sample at a lab Image for Representation
news Nipah Tuesday, September 07, 2021 - 09:22

In February 2019, Kerala opened its first virology institute at the Thonnakkal Life Sciences Park in Thiruvananthapuram, the Institute of Advanced Virology (IAV). The Kerala government decided to set up IAV during the outbreak of the Nipah virus in Kozhikode in May 2018, which claimed 17 lives. The core idea behind setting up the institute was to ensure a timely diagnosis of infectious diseases being reported in the state and engaged in research activities, too.

After the 2018 outbreak, the state reported a Nipah virus infection in June 2019, when a young man got infected and later recovered. In September 2021, the Nipah virus (NiV) was detected for the third time in Kerala, in a 12-year old boy. However, it claimed his life. During both these instances of the infection, Kerala sent samples for testing to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Maharashtra’s Pune, although it had its own institute for the same purpose.  

The IAV is yet to take off as a full-fledged facility for advanced testing, thus failing to deliver what it had been conceived and set up for. IAV does not have the Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) Lab, which is required to carry out the Nipah virus test. 

Read: Why only NIV Pune confirms Nipah – and why this isn’t ideal for Kerala

Kerala, too, has a unit of the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Alappuzha. However, NIV Alappuzha also cannot carry out the Nipah virus test as it does not have the BSL-3 Lab. A BSL-3 Lab is being set up on the second campus of the Rajiv Gandhi Centre of Bio-Technology Akkulam in Thiruvananthapuram.

BSL-3 is applicable to clinical, diagnostic, teaching and research. While BSL-1 is the lowest biosafety lab level, BSL-4 is the highest and most stringent level. For the functioning of a BSL-3 laboratory, it should have the following parameters — standard personal protective equipment and respirators (might be required), solid-front wraparound gowns, scrub suits or coveralls (often required), all work with microbes must be performed within an appropriate Biosafety Cabin, a sustained directional airflow to draw air into the laboratory from clean to potentially containment areas, access hands-free sink and eyewash available near the exit and a self-closing of locking doors with access away from general building corridors.

"Nipah virus is highly infectious and highly lethal with around 60% mortality rate. The highly infectious and lethal virus can be tested only in a BSL-3. For testing of coronavirus, only BSL-2 Lab is required, which is available in all laboratories in the state that test COVID-19. Kerala sends samples to NIV Pune. Even in a BSL-3 set-up, a Primer RNA (which initiates DNA synthesis) is needed,” a scientist, who did not want to be identified, told TNM. While the institute was set up in 2019, it had planned to apply to the Indian Council of Medical Science and Research (ICMR) to get the required certification for the Nipah virus testing. "The process is to apply for the certification, after which the Union government will process it. However, the institute has not sent any application so far, neither for Nipah nor for COVID-19," the scientist alleged.

According to the scientist, there are many factors why IAV hasn’t been developed to the desired level. “The IAV was conceived in an ambitious manner with an apt, detailed project report. However, it did not progress at the intended pace. A separate diagnosing facility with BSL-2 Lab was set up at IAV. However, despite this, the COVID-19 test, too, is not done at IAV,” the scientist added. 

Akhil C Banerjee, who was the Emeritus Scientist at the National Institute of Immunology New Delhi, was appointed as the director of IAV in Kerala. However, he discontinued. As of now, the institute does not have a director. Though a scientist of the Rajiv Gandhi Centre has been appointed, the official has not allegedly taken charge yet.

Read: Nipah virus in Kerala: All you need to know about symptoms and precautions

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