Setback to India’s Covid Genome Sequencing Efforts- 5 Labs Shut- A cause for concern



Shri Mansukh Mandaviya

Union Health Minister

Dear Shri Mandaviya,

At a recent meeting to review the Covid containment effort, the Prime Minister was reported to have said, “There is a need for continuous scientific research… including genome sequencing, given that the virus is evolving continuously.

Contrary to what he had said at the meeting, it has been reported (“Blow To India’s Covid Genome Sequencing Efforts, 5 Labs Shut: Sources“) that “sequencing is down about 40 per cent compared to last month, and only an estimated 25,000 genomes have been sequenced since the more infectious Omicron strain, which is widely believed to be driving the third wave of infections in India, was first reported in November”.

This is a matter of serious concern, as your Ministry, in coordination with the Finance and Science & Technology (Biotechnology) Ministries, ought to have enlarged and strengthened the INSACOG network of genome sequencing labs in the country, soon after the country had gone through the trauma of the second wave of Covid last year, when the government found itself thoroughly unprepared. Even at that time, some of us had pointed out to your Ministry the urgency of strengthening both the RT-PCR testing and the genome sequencing networks, but no significant effort in that direction was evident.

I thought that your Ministry would be sensitive enough to take note of the fact that India has so far lost 4.88 lakh innocent lives from Covid (reported- actual numbers are far more). The daily rate of deaths during the current Covid surge has crossed 400. With the daily incidence of new Covid cases in the current third wave exceeding 3 lakhs, unless a statistically significant size of samples is subject to RT-PCR testing and genome sequencing, how does your Ministry know the percentage of the Delta and Omicron cases?

I gather from the news reports that, as a result of inadequate capacity of testing and genome sequencing facilities, your Ministry or one of your expert agencies had earlier advised the States to restrict testing only to symptomatic cases and risk-prone persons, as a result of which the testing sample sizes have drastically declined, leading to highly misleading results. It is a paradoxical situation in which the positivity rates shot up but the number of new cases was flattening!

More recently, perhaps realising the consequences that followed, your Ministry has since asked the States to step up the testing rates. All this has resulted in the country losing precious time in getting reliable information on the incidence of Delta and Omicron viruses, which is necessary for planning the campaign against Covid.

In view of the inadequate RT-PCR testing rates and genome sequencing effort, one is not sure whether new mutants of Covid, other than Delta and Omicron have since evolved and how the Covid containment strategy should be reviewed. It is also distressing that your Ministry has not taken the public into confidence on these crucial aspects.

If 40% of the genome sequencing facilities have had to be shut down due to paucity of funds, or shortage of reagents, has your Ministry in consultation with the Ministry of Science and Technology taken up the matter with the Finance Ministry and kept the Prime Minister informed? Considering that every life lost as a result of Covid is valuable and any delay or shortfall in dealing with the virus needs to be viewed seriously, this calls for a thorough investigation. The public should know the facts.

May I request you to get this matter examined on priority and the findings disclosed to the public?


Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma, Former Secretary to Government of India, Visakhapatnam

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