India Building 160-Strong Lab Network To Tackle Bio-Terrorism

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New Delhi: At a time when even the US has been slammed by experts for failing in dealing with bio-terrorism, India’s efforts in creating a network of labs to fight it has taken off well with 35 labs established in the first phase having completed collection of data from more than 1,00,000 patients on various kinds of viruses, bacteria and parasites.

In about 18 months, a breakout in even a remote part of India will be known to New Delhi and other relevant centres regardless of the casualty count. The labs will detect and map all known viruses and other agents, while also doing research on unknown agents.

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National and international reports, including a WikiLeaks cable made public five years ago have pointed to the threats bio-terrorism — use of infectious biological agents such as smallpox or anthrax virus as weapons of terrorism — has posed to India. India, according to reports in the public domain, has been on the bio-terrorism radar since the mid-2000s.

While the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has traditionally head India’s preparations against bio-terrorism, the network of 160 labs India is building is being funded through the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR).

“As per plans, 160 labs will come up in a three-tier national network of Viral Research & Diagnostic Laboratories (VRDLs) for timely identification of viruses and other agents causing morbidity significant at public health level and specifically agents causing epidemics and/or potential agents for bio-terrorism,” a document from the ministry of health research reads.

The network of labs will develop infrastructure and expertise for diagnosis of viruses and bacteria with a potential to cause outbreaks and/or are responsible for disease burdens. Ten regional labs, 30 state-level labs and 120 labs in medical colleges will form the network, which also aims at creating a national database. Of this, 35 labs in the regional and state-level categories have been established in the last 18 months.

One of the first labs has been established in Manipal, a suburb of Udupi on the western coast of India. Speaking to TOI from the Manipal Centre for Virus Research, which is established within the Manipal University, Dr Arun Kumar said: “As we speak we have developed capabilities to detect more than 50 viruses in just our lab and work is on across the country.”

In fact, Arun said that the labs are now going beyond viruses and are also looking at bacteria and parasites. “We’ve developed ability to detect more than 10 bacteria and even two parasites,” he said.

Explaining how the system works, Arun said, all samples are referred through the district surveillance units, set up in each districts.

Even as no concrete links to bio-terrorism has been established to previous outbreaks in the country, investigations into the mid-1990s dengue hemorrhagic fever, which saw dengue remerge with an expanded geographic distribution and increased epidemic activity have been inconclusive of where the virus originated from. There is also the famous case of anthrax.

“There are two broad things we can attribute any such breakout to. One, it naturally spread and two, a virus or bacteria was deliberated put into our system/society. Either way, the procedure of how we deal with it shouldn’t change. The goal is to detect, diagnose and eradicate such things” a senior researchers who didn’t want to be named said.

Muniasamy Neerathilingam, an expert in the field heading research work at one of the labs in the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), says: “Bacteria, for example, grows in 20 minutes and you can imagine how quickly it can multiply. In case of virus, the time required is even less. So, it was time that we took things seriously and the move by the Centre is in the right direction.”

He also pointed to how such outbreaks not only take away lives but also affect the social functioning of societies. “Sometimes, it needn’t even be a virus that hits people. Imagine village after village losing its livestock,” he asks.

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