Government report flags ‘lapses’ in Nagaland bat study

Government report flags ‘lapses’ in Nagaland bat study

Role of foreign researchers questioned amid row over storage of samples at NCBS, Bengaluru

More than a year after a probe into a filovirus study of bats in Nagaland by the Bangalore-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the government has concluded that there had been “concerning lapses” in the conduct and protocols followed for the study, even as an inter-department row continues over where the bat samples should be stored.

The Hindu had first reported in February 2020 on the enquiry being initiated into whether adequate permissions had been sought for the study that had listed two scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology as “co-authors”, and was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defence through its Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

In 2020, a committee convened by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which consisted of officials from the Ministries of External Affairs, Defence, Home Affairs, Health, Environment, Law, Departments of Science & Technology, Development of North Eastern Region, and others met to “to streamline processes and avoid such lapses in the future,” a report prepared by the Ministry of Health said. Both the foreign-funding of the study, that cost an estimated ₹1.9 crore, as well as concerns over the storage of the bat samples collected came up for scrutiny.

No Wuhan link

The findings of the report became significant given the debate over the origins of the Covid-19 worldwide, and handling of bat samples at the Wuhan Institute laboratory, given that both studies share one common co-author. However, scientific experts and officials that The Hindu spoke to made it clear that the Nagaland bat study on filoviruses (Ebola and Marburg) was in no way related to the coronavirus (SARs) studies at Wuhan.

When contacted, NCBS Director Satyajit Mayor said he had no knowledge of the Health Ministry’s report’s conclusions.

“We are not aware of lapses,” said Mr. Mayor, in written replies to The Hindu. “The [bat] samples we have collected are invaluable to research and understanding zoonotic pathogens,” he added, directing all further enquiries on the clearances and bat samples to the Ministry of Health.

However, both the Ministry of Health report dated February 2021, as well as a series of communications between the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and the Department of Atomic Energy, which oversaw the NCBS study in October-November 2020, referred to the issues. The Hindu has seen copies of these documents.

“The research publication raised serious concerns as the samples were collected from humans and bats with intent to test for viral pathogens and resulting antibodies of highly infectious pathogens (risk group 4 viruses). The study didn’t have the requisite approval of ICMR. Moreover, the facility at NCBS was not equipped in terms of biosafety and biosecurity to undertake such testing,” states the Health Ministry report.

“The inquiry committee (including Health Ministry and ICMR officials) visited NCBS, Bangalore as well as Nagaland to understand the work done, methodology followed, and places visited during the course of the study,” said the report, adding that they found “concerning lapses in the study protocols and procedures”.

“All the lapses were discussed and appropriate actions were suggested,” it added.

Safe storage issues

Meanwhile differences over the storage of the Nagaland bat samples between the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and the Ministry of Health continue. The Health Ministry wants the samples of nucleic acid extract stored at the Bio Safety Level -4 (BSL-4) standard facility at the National Institute of Virology laboratory in Pune, rather than NCBS’s Bengaluru facilities, that are rated BSL-3 at present.

While the DAE contends that the samples were “non-infectious” and had been checked for the presence of filoviruses (Ebola and Marburg), the Health Ministry contends that such samples must be handled in a laboratory equipped for “biosafety and biosecurity conditions” as otherwise they can pose a “significant public health hazard”.

“The issue of bio-security comes under Department of Biotechnology, and ICMR has no business raising any concerns on a study done by NCBS, which is an institution under the Department of Atomic Energy,” said noted virologist Gagandeep Kang.

When asked, however, an official said that a 1987 Health Ministry order had designated ICMR Director General and the Health Secretary as the Chairpersons on the committee clearing all research involving foreign funding and foreign collaboration.

According to the citation in the study, named “Filovirus-reactive antibodies in humans and bats in Northeast India imply zoonotic spillover”, that was published in 2019, the research was funded by U.S. Dept of Defense, U.S. Naval Biological Defense Research Directorate, and Indian Department of Atomic Energy, and credits researchers at Duke-NUS Singapore, U.S. Uniformed Services University as well as Shi Zhengli and Xinglou Yang from the Wuhan Institute for “writing- review and editing” the paper.

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