COVID-19 genomics body INSACOG has not put out weekly bulletin since March 27

Sequencing genomes of COVID-19 variants has dipped because fewer samples are being made available to network-labs, says Department of Biotechnology Secretary

May 23, 2023 08:56 pm | Updated May 24, 2023 07:43 am IST - NEW DELHI

A lab technician with collected samples for RT-PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2 at Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital in Chennai. File

A lab technician with collected samples for RT-PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2 at Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital in Chennai. File | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

India appears to have slowed down on sequencing genomes of COVID-19 variants. The India SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), a multi-laboratory, multi-agency, pan-India network tasked with sequencing, and keeping an eye out for new, threatening SARS-CoV-2 variants, has not published a single bulletin since March 27.

Earlier, the agency would publish reports once a week. Bulletins provided information on the circulating variants of COVID-19, States that were seeing a surge in the contagious variants and information on whether SARS-CoV-2 variants linked to major outbreaks internationally had been found in India.

December 2022 saw four bulletins on the 5th, 12th, 19th and 26th of the month, January 2023 saw bulletins on the 2nd and 9th, February saw no bulletins while March had bulletin releases on the 13th, 20th and the last on the 27th of the month. April and May (so far) had no bulletins for the public.

Speaking to The Hindu, a top official from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), which oversees INSACOG, said that a new bulletin is expected later this week. Rajesh Gokhale, Secretary, DBT, said, “A new bulletin is expected to be out later this week.”

He said sequencing had dipped because fewer samples were being made available to network-labs from hospitals and medical colleges for sequencing (as reported cases were declining).

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“There are no specific variants of significant concern with XBB variants dominating,” he added.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that countries should not look away from COVID-19 and on May 20, launched a global network to help protect people from infectious disease threats through the power of pathogen genomics.

Surveillance network

“The International Pathogen Surveillance Network (IPSN) will provide a platform to connect countries and regions, improving systems for collecting and analysing samples, using these data to drive public health decision-making, and sharing that information more broadly,” it said.

The Health Ministry had written to the States and Union Territories warning against letting up on surveillance measures and asking them to keep up with testing. The COVID-19 virus is prone to evolution and has been seen as co-infection with various diseases.

Data from the genome sequencing laboratories is analysed as per the field data trends to study the links (if any) between emerging genomic variants and disease trends.

The surveillance network aids in forecasting super-spreader events, outbreaks and strengthening public health interventions across the country to help in breaking the chains of transmission.

Also Read |COVID-19 tests down, need to be scaled up, says government

Linking this data with the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) data and patients’ symptoms allows a better understanding of the viral infection dynamics, morbidity and mortality trends, said INSACOG.

INSACOG is a joint programme initiated by the Union Health Ministry of Health and the Department of Biotechnology with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). It is a consortium of 54 laboratories to monitor the genomic variations in SARS-CoV-2.

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