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Biology Fact Check

Indian RNA unique? Indians resistant to COVID? Fact check

No ‘unique RNA’ of Indians will save us from COVID; the fake news may develop complacency and make us more susceptible to viral attacks

In tandem with the best institutions and laboratories in the world, their Indian counterparts have advanced in the research on the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (nCOVID-19 or COVID-19 or COVID), with the Indian Institute of Science, the National Institute of Immunology and the Translational Health Science Technology Institute getting close to developing a vaccine for the China-origin biological agent. However, their genuine progress aside, some media houses — especially in Hindi and other Indian languages — are making a mockery of science for the sake of what they believe is in the national interest. Since last night, a video in Hindi has been circulating that claims that the incidence of COVID is low in India because Indians have a unique RNA (ribonucleic acid) that is naturally resistant to the virus.

If true, the discovery is most certainly newsworthy. As Indians, we may seek pride in our ‘natural’ physical constitution. But this isn’t true in the first place. Rather, believing in this story could throw Indians into a fit of complacency, making them more susceptible to attacks of the China-origin biological agent.

As an Indian, seek pride in the progress of our institutions

While a copy of the video Sirf News has received claims this to be a finding of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), the actual news from the said institution is that anti-epilepsy drug valproic acid can be repurposed and used for acute cases of COVID.

Further, the ICGEB in Delhi will collaborate with the ICGEB of Trieste (Italy), which has progressed well on diagnostics and therapy — according to Dinakar M Salunke, the director of ICGEB. [More about the utility of valproic acid towards the end of this report]

National Institute of Virology under Indian Council of Medical Research

At par with world’s best research facilities, the Indian Council of Medical Research’s National Institute of Virology (NIV) has isolated the strains of SARS-CoV-2 — remember that coronavirus is a variation of the SARS virus — from three patients who had returned from Wuhan. This strain is similar to that isolated in Wuhan. [How NIV may collaborate with other Indian medical research facilities later in this report]

Finding of the National Institute of Immunology

Further, the institution that studied the RNA of Indians and other nationals is the National Institute of Immunology (NII). And even that does not make the “unique Indian RNA” claim. What NII did is discover that the virus mutates as it travels, riding on its hosts, from one geographical location to another. “The virus changes. By the time you may develop a vaccine it could have changed form. It’s important for us to understand how it’s changing. First is to see if people who have travelled from Italy, Germany, China, the US etc are infected with the same strain. That can happen through ribonucleic acid (RNA) sequencing. We saw such mutations during the H1N1 outbreak,” said Dr Amulya K Panda, the director of the centre.

What the NII is doing further is study 46 such people who were afflicted but have now recovered. The institute is trying to understand what antibodies these people developed to fight the disease and how. And then there is something Indians can certainly seek pride in. “Remember that every third vaccine used globally is developed in India. We will be able to deliver. But it’s a matter of time and safety. We will definitely get the virus but if our facilities are not well-contained, we will end up spreading the infection. It is lethal stuff. We have a BSL 3 [Biosafety level 3] laboratory where these tests can be conducted,” Dr Panda said.

India has biosafety level 3 laboratories that are high containment facilities that can handle safety issues while studying infectious diseases. As to how long it will take India to develop an antidote for COVID, Panda said, “We have to wait for things to cool down and see what’s possible when.”

The scientist appreciated the government call for nationwide lockdown and appeal for social distancing. He said these were the only options to check the spread of the disease until vaccines and/or antidotes for COVID are developed.

Translational Health Science and Technology Institute

Now, fighters against a global pandemic will be ill-equipped without proper diagnostic kits. This is another domain in the medical discipline where India is doing commendable work. The Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) is developing a diagnostic with a timeline of only a few months.

In a period that will be a little more than a year, the THSTI will have developed also potential therapeutics by “repurposing existing drugs, studying new chemical compounds, designing new compounds based on the structure of the virus and using monoclonal antibodies from infected patients to treat new patients”, the institute told Sirf News.

Gagandeep Kang, director of THSTI, said, “The development of a vaccine may take whole of next year depending on access to samples. The work on developing a diagnostic kit is also on hold now because THSTI will need an import license to get the virus which can happen after the lockdown is lifted.”

On 21 March, the office of principal scientific adviser to the union government K Vijayraghavan had issued a memorandum, saying that the government had allowed national research laboratories to carry out clinical testing for COVID-19. The scientists at these centres can access samples from any government-approved clinical testing site — subject to the ethical approval for such research.

Biosafety level 3 and those of higher levels can also culture the virus. Hospitals are sharing samples with these labs. The director of THSTI that her centre would try to tie up with a hospital in Delhi-NCR for the samples required.

Indian Institute of Science

In Bengaluru, a group of more than 30 researchers of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) are preparing research proposals. They want to probe aspects of molecular epidemiology and host-pathogen interactions. The epidemiology will involve a study of causative, protective, genetic susceptibility or predisposing factors. “Host-pathogen interactions” refer to the manner in which the virus sustains in humans.

Professor, Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology and Chair, Division of Biological Sciences at IISc Umesh Varshney said these researches call for massive funding. But before that, the government must approve of it. The IISc has hence sent a request to the government for the same.

The IISc is trying to develop a vaccine for COVID too. It will be tested using ICMR-approved reagents. “We are very much concerned about the Covid-19 pandemic…we are happy to extend our expertise to the approved labs for Covid-19 testing,” Varshney said.

National Centre for Biological Sciences

Finally, the National Centre for Biological Sciences is trying to come up with short- and medium-term solutions like “disease surveillance, modelling, use of genomics and bioinformatics” to understand the evolution of the virus and map disease susceptibility.

More than 20 research institutes are working on developing a vaccine for COVID-19, according to the department of biotechnology (DBT) that, along with Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), has announced a COVID-19 research consortium for vaccines, diagnostics and repurposing of existing drugs.

Researchers must follow the DBT draft guidelines on storing and sharing biological data.

The DBT has asked the scientists to make large banks of biological data accessible in a “reasonable” period of time to facilitate research.

What ICGEB actually found

Coming back to the ICGEB, scientist Neel Sarovar Bhavesh — the head of transcriptional regulation at ICGEB — has written to the director-general of the ICMR to test valproic acid at the NIV, Pune, or any other ICMR lab to find a solution to COVID as soon as possible.

Valproic acid, being an approved drug, the patent of which has expired, is sold under brand names such as Depacon and Stavzor to treat epilepsy. The University of California has validated the ICGEB’s research findings, saying valproic acid is indeed one of the molecules for repurposing and testing for use against COVID.

Bhavesh said, “We have performed high-throughput virtual screening (HTVS) of 1.2 million small molecules from the four databases, and later performed Energy calculation and molecular binding simulation. We found that valproic acid CoA may be repurposed to inhibit the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase of the virus.”

“We have written to the DG ICMR to test this molecule on cell culture and animal testing facilities, in combination with potent binding blocking molecules. Currently, no one in India outside the NIV and ICMR has access to the Covid-19 virus,” Bhavesh said.

“About 1,100 strains of the novel coronavirus have been sequenced from around the world. We (in India) have around 700 confirmed positive cases, but only two virus sequences are available at the NIV. These sequences are different from each other,” the scientist said.

Multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline contacted the Indian branch of ICGEB, according to Bhavesh who is longing for cooperation by government bodies like the ICMR and the NIV for access to the virus strains in India, which the ICGEB would like to test.

“There should be synchronisation in testing and developing. If NIV or any other research institution finds success, lots of patients can be cured and saved. The need of the hour is to find the solution. The NIV must cooperate with other institutions more generously,” he said. The government acknowledges the newfound utility of some drugs that have traditionally been administered to treat other diseases. Early solutions for the novel coronavirus can be found from repurposed drugs. The government recognises also the fact that developing new drugs would take time — as per the 29 March statement of union biotechnology secretary Renu Swarup.

With inputs from Hindutsn Times and ThePrint

By Surajit Dasgupta

The founder of Sirf News has been a science correspondent in The Statesman, senior editor in The Pioneer, special correspondent in Money Life and columnist in various newspapers and magazines, writing in English as well as Hindi. He was the national affairs editor of Swarajya, 2014-16. He worked with Hindusthan Samachar in 2017. He was the first chief editor of Sirf News and is now back at the helm after a stint as the desk head of MyNation of the Asianet group.

He is a mathematician by training with interests in academic pursuits of science, linguistics and history. He advocates individual liberty and a free market in a manner that is politically feasible. His hobbies include Hindi film music and classical poetry in Bengali, English, French, Hindi and Urdu.

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