Scientists associated with INSACOG, the government panel that conducts research on different variants of the coronavirus, said they were surprised at noted virologist Shahid Jameel's decision to quit the group and wondered whether he was disillusioned with the government's handling of the pandemic. He quit days after he had said that scientists were facing "stubborn resistance to evidence-based policy making".
Jameel announced his plan to step down in a meeting of INSACOG held on Friday, said four officials and scientists who were part of it. Requesting anonymity, they said Jameel's decision was not anticipated. Calls and messages to Jameel went unanswered. A scientist said the virologist did not give any reason for his resignation. "In a meeting on Friday, he simply said that he was stepping down as the head of INSACOG," said the scientist who attended the meeting.
Another scientist who attended the meeting said, "Maybe, he was upset with the government (over its handling of the pandemic)." The third scientist said the reason behind his decision to quit is not clear and added that Jameel's exit would not have much effect on the working of the consortium. "The decision was not anticipated," the fourth scientist said, adding that he did not have any idea about it before Jameel's announcement on Friday.
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) is a grouping of 10 national laboratories that was established by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on December 25 last year after the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus like the ones first detected in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
These labs are National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, Kalyani; Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar; National Institute of Virology, Pune; National Centre For Cell Science, Pune; Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad; Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad; National Centre For Biological Sciences, Bengaluru; National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience, Bengaluru; Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, Delhi; and National Centre for Disease Control, Delhi.
INSACOG has been carrying out genomic sequencing and analysis of circulating COVID-19 viruses, and correlating epidemiological trends with genomic variants. However, it came under criticism after the second wave of coronavirus swept the country.
"The resignation of Dr. Shahid Jameel, one of India's best virologists, is really sad. Modi Sarkar has no place for professionals who can speak their mind freely without fear or favour," senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh tweeted. "How much longer will India suffer due to their ignorance," the party asked on its official Twitter handle. Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari asked if he quit on his own or was "forced to quit".
Jameel had made his displeasure clear over the government's handling of the pandemic. In a piece on the second wave of coronavirus in the New York Times last week, Jameel wrote, "All of these measures have wide support among my fellow scientists in India. But they are facing stubborn resistance to evidence-based policymaking. On April 30, over 800 Indian scientists appealed to the Prime Minister, demanding access to the data that could help them further study, predict and curb this virus."
"Decision-making based on data is yet another casualty, as the pandemic in India has spun out of control. The human cost we are enduring will leave a permanent scar," he added. In a webinar held by the Department of Biotechnology on the work done by INSACOG, Jameel had a message for people who are fighting this pandemic through science or through administrative means .
He stressed that for this, one has to follow the process of three Ts --- truth, transparency and trust. "If we are truthful in what we see and what we report, that brings transparency, and if we are transparent, that brings public trust and this is something that is going to be a very powerful tool in our fight against this pandemic.
Science is a process that calls for evidence-based policy making and not a policy based evidence making. And this is something that we must never forget, Jameel asserted. In a panel discussion last month, Jameel had said the data is completely skewed, the data is completely false .
He also choked while sharing the plight of his professor friend who passed away unable to get a hospital bed and oxygen. "All our science is useless. Everything right at this point seems very numb and very difficult to understand. And this is when idiots are talking about how well the UP government is doing, he said.
He said the situation is "completely messed up. We have lost the plot completely. There is nothing else to say. Mutants, variants, you can justify all this. Nothing matters. It is a complete breakdown of the whole god damn system."
"If you look at the test positivity rate of India, the test positivity is roughly 17%. I think it is much more than that. New infection rate is rising more than the test positivity. That simply tells you that enough good data is just not coming. It's all being manipulated, it's all being managed, he said. When asked whether the coronavirus data is being fudged, he replied, "Big time"