A decision by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to donate $3.6 million to Indian laboratories and research agencies to assist in countering the COVID-19 pandemic could run into delays, given that the agency has been placed on a “watch list” since December 2019, officials said in New Delhi.
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On May 12, the U.S. Embassy issued a release saying the CDC would commit $3.6 million as an “initial tranche of funding” to India’s response to the pandemic. “Since early January, the CDC’s India Office has been collaborating with sub-national and national government institutes to support the COVID-19 response in India,” the release said, adding that the money would go towards increasing “laboratory capacity for COVID-19 (SARC-CoV-2) testing, molecular diagnostics and serology”.
However, a government official told The Hindu that any funding from the U.S. government body would have to be cleared by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as it had been placed on a “watch list” on December 2, 2019, that barred it from sending funds directly to any government or private institute in India without the MHA’s clearance.
Work on Nipah
Significantly, the strictures followed an inquiry into the CDC’s funding of an “unapproved” Indian laboratory in Manipal for work on the Nipah virus, considered a “potential bio-weapon”.
On October 30, 2019, the Union Health Ministry wrote to both the CDC and the Manipal Centre for Virus Research (MCVR), ordering them to shut down the study. In a reply to The Hindu in February, the CDC said, “There was initial confusion about the requirement for the Health Ministry’s Screening Committee clearance for private institutions.” It added that once the government had objected to the project, the CDC closed the project and withheld further funding to the MCVR.
The U.S. Embassy, from which the CDC operates, did not disclose specifics of which agencies would be the recipients of the funding. However, sources said the funding would not go to any one agency, and would be spread over a number of technical partners working with the agency based in Atlanta, Georgia.
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Any NGO or association has to register themselves under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010, to receive foreign funds. Foreign donors can directly send funds to the NGOs and institutes registered under the FCRA; but if a foreign donor has been placed on the watch list or in the “prior permission” category, the donor cannot directly send money without clearance by the MHA, another government official said.
The MHA informs the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), which asks banks to look out for any transaction to the accounts of the beneficiary NGOs from the foreign donor on the watch list. Aid from foreign governments and U.N bodies are exempted from the FCRA .
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There are more than 20 foreign donors under the government scanner, which includes the influential U.S.-based Compassion International and Family Federation for World Peace and Unification of South Korea. Of these, eight were put in the prior-permission category during the UPA government and 13 after Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. The U.S.-based Ford Foundation, which was also put in this category in 2015, was taken off the list days before the Prime Minister was to visit Washington the same year.
A response from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which is the overseeing authority for all such collaborative research, is awaited.
( With inputs from Bindu Shajan Perappadan )