The Ministry of Home Affairs has suspended Manipal Academy of Higher Education's (MAHE) Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) license in a move that stops the institute from receiving or using foreign funds. An official from the institute confirmed this to TNM on Monday.
This decision comes following allegations that ‘unauthorised’ research had been carried out on the Nipah virus, a biological warfare grade pathogen. However, virologists at Manipal Institute of Virology (MIV) denied the allegation stating that the health ministry had approved the lab’s handling of Nipah samples. Virologists from MIV have also clarified that the samples of the virus being used in the lab were inactivated and not capable of infecting people. They also stated that the virus was isolated for such purposes at the government-run National Institute of Virology (NIV), in Pune.
“Our FCRA account was suspended in January 2020 over allegations we received foreign funding for Nipah virus testing. We have written to the Ministry of Home Affairs denying this. We are awaiting a response,” Dr G Arunkumar, MIV Director told TNM.
The FCRA, 2010 regulates acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution into companies or organisations in India.
The government’s decision came as a rude shock to Dr Arunkumar and his counterparts in Manipal. MIV was earlier hailed for its early detection and containment of the Nipah virus in Kerala in 2018. However, a year later, the laboratory found that it was removed from the Nipah guidelines in 2019 despite being listed as a designated laboratory during the initial outbreak in 2018.
MIV was accused by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) of storing samples of the Nipah virus despite the lack of a biological safety level 4 (BSL-4) certification. Labs around the world are graded based on biosafety levels as issued by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States. Pathogens which are deemed high risk and contagious, such as the Nipah virus are considered to be a high Risk Group (RG) 4 virus and can only be handled in laboratories which have been certified as BSL 4.
The Indian government also asked the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stop funding research in India without the government’s approval. The research was reviewed every quarter by a committee co chaired by Director General of Health Services (DGHS) and the Director General of ICMR.
However, Dr. Arunkumar states that no foreign funds were used for research on the Nipah virus. “We worked closely with the ICMR and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare during the outbreak investigation. We were corresponding with officials on a daily basis,” Dr. Arunkumar said.
The presence of the Nipah virus was detected on May 18 2018 by MIV after they were sent samples from the Baby Memorial Hospital in Kozhikode to diagnose what appeared to be a cluster of encephalitis cases. Nine days after the virus was detected at MIV, ICMR sanctioned Rs 15.8 lakh for the outbreak investigation of the Nipah virus in Kerala.
After the outbreak was deemed to be over in July 2018, MIV was asked to return all samples of the Nipah virus collected by the laboratory to NIV, Pune. “A team of officials from NIV, Pune arrived in Manipal and took away 18 samples which tested positive for the Nipah virus and 367 samples which tested negative. We were provided a receipt for the same,” Dr. Arunkumar added.
But since then, MIV has faced problems over its handling of the Nipah virus. In April 2019, MIV was informed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare that it was not eligible to store Nipah virus samples.
The Acute Febrile Illness programme carried out by MIV along with the US CDC was stopped in May 2019 following a letter issued by the CDC which discontinued the programme. The project was started in June 2014 and was active in ten states in the country. It aimed to detect outbreaks and initiate public health action. MIV currently has active collaborations with the CDC, Public Health England (PHE), United Kingdom and the School of Public Health, University of Alabama, Birmingham, USA.
Amidst these allegations, officials from MIV are looking to contest the ICMR’s decision to remove it from the ICMR list.