Need to setup level-4 laboratories, task force to prepare against bio-threats

by Dr. W. Selvamurthy

The COVID-19 episode is a strong wake-up call for the nation to prepare a blueprint on bio-threat preparedness, response, mitigation and restoration. 

India today has the largest biological wealth in the world. It has the demographic advantage of having the human resource of 1.3 billion people with 50 per cent below the age of 25 years. The animal wealth is also comparable to the human resource in numbers with more than one billion animals. The country has unparalleled plant wealth. More than 15 per cent of GDP comes from the agriculture sector and 60 per cent of the population is employed in this sector directly or indirectly. The nation has a rich biodiversity with two hotspots, one in the North East and other in the Western Ghats, having more than 45,000 species of plants—many of them having medicinal value.

With such biological assets, there is a need for formulation of detailed plans and strategies to appropriately respond to any bio-threat to the three major categories of biological wealth.

Bio-threats can arise from a natural outbreak transiting to an epidemic or pandemic, from an irresponsible nation venturing into bio-warfare on a large scale which is rather a remote possibility, or from an act of bioterrorism from a non-state actor.

It must be noted that the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) is still not ratified globally, unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which is administered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an intergovernmental organization based in the Hague.

Likewise, one cannot rule out the possibility of a virulent and contagious pathogen making its way out of an advanced microbiology laboratory; or a vaccine development unit that could inadvertently leak the pathogen out of a laboratory or facility that does not practice adequate bio-safety and bio-security safeguards. 

All these scenarios re-emphasize the need for a concerted action plan for our nation that should be made operational on a priority basis.

The Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO) has already developed considerable expertise to deliver a large number of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) defence technologies and products to our Armed Forces.

These include field-based diagnostic tools, personal protective equipment (PPE), collective protection at underground field shelters, decontamination devices and materials and medical management. Even a model hospital to handle CBRN victims has been developed. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has issued Standard Operating Procedure with valuable inputs from DRDO.

A decade ago, DRDO also formulated a blueprint for bio-threat mitigation and initiated a dialogue through inter-ministerial consultation. Now is the most opportune time to give a renewed thrust to all necessary endeavours for bio-threat preparedness.

A national-level mission mode program on bio-threat mitigation may need to be launched with overall coordination by the National Security Advisor (NSA) in the Prime Minister’s Office, since bio-threat may impact our comprehensive National Security. A task force at National Security Council Secretariat may be constituted to address this dire need with the focus. Since it involves coordination between multiple ministries such as defence, health, agriculture and others, it is essential to constitute an inter-ministerial steering committee for proper coordination keeping DRDO as the nodal department.

Necessary resources including adequate budget need to be allocated for this important national mission. Currently, in our country, we have only one BSL- 4 facility at the National Institute of Virology, Pune. The country would require at least five more such facilities to be established on priority for undertaking advance R&D endeavours to study pathogens, keep a repository of potential bio-threat agents and develop diagnostics and therapeutics.

A large country like ours should strengthen the existing surveillance systems and mechanisms for identifying natural outbreaks. A reliable database of epidemiological studies on infectious diseases needs to be strengthened to discriminate between the natural outbreak or the onset of an epidemic.

The Government of India needs to make a critical investment for the development of appropriate technologies and products, evolve suitable policies and ensure their practices at the grass-root level by networking with the state. In a federal structure like ours, the involvement and participation of states is an essential perspective of such a national initiative. It is indeed a ‘wake-up call for the nation’ to respond appropriately and adequately towards any bio-threat considering the emerging scenario.

Dr. W. Selvamurthy is president, Amity Science, Technology and Innovation Foundation, Director-General for Amity Directorate of Science and Innovation and Chancellor, Amity University, Chhattisgarh