China isolated the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) from a patient and shared the first whole genome sequence data of the virus with the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) on January 11. This allowed scientists from across the world to study the genome data to know more about the virus origin and develop diagnostics.
As on March 4, 23 countries, including Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia, have shared 159 genome sequence data. At 65, China has deposited the most number of genome sequences followed by the U.S. (16), Australia (10), Japan (9) and Singapore and South Korea (eight sequences each).
Also read | The SARS-CoV-2 is mutating, say scientists
However, till date, India has not shared even one genome sequence data. The first COVID-19 patient in India, a medical student who had returned from Wuhan, was confirmed on January 30 by the Pune-based national Institute of Virology (NIV). Two more adults from Kerala too had tested positive students and were laboratory confirmed by NIV about a month back.
Even in 2015 H1N1 outbreak when 42,592 cases and 2,990 deaths were reported from India, the full genome sequence data was not shared with the WHO reference laboratories or deposited in public databases.
“Virus genome sequencing is transforming epidemiological investigations, as we are seeing in real-time with the novel coronavirus outbreak. Sequencing provides a platform to rapidly identify unknown or unexpected pathogens, identify the origins of an outbreak, and track transmission patterns,” Dr. Nathan Grubaug, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases) at Yale School of Public Health says in a release .
“Sequencing the genome of novel coronavirus will help us to know where the virus came from and how the virus has spread. For instance, by sequencing the genome of the virus isolated from an Indian patient, it will become possible to know if the virus had come from China or any other country,” says Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, Sonepat, Haryana and the Chennai-based Institute of Mathematical Sciences.
According to Prof. Menon, genome sequencing will help in tracing contacts and give a clear picture of whether the virus has undergone mutations to make it more virulent or less.
“India has only to gain and nothing to lose by sharing the sequence data. In a rapidly evolving pandemic-like situation, it is imperative that nations share genome sequence data quickly and to the fullest,” Prof. Menon says.
“Without sequencing the genome of the virus we won’t know where the virus came from. The European clade [for instance] is developing, which is distinctly different from China,” says Dr. Shahid Jameel, CEO of the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance.
When contacted, Dr. Balram Bhargava, Director-General of ICMR did not want to comment.