New Delhi: ‘One Health’ — an integrated approach that observes humans, animals and the environment to monitor and prevent diseases — is one of the first missions that newly appointed Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) Dr Ajay K. Sood will be focussing on.
In an exclusive interview with ThePrint, Sood said that six ministries — including the ministries of science, health, animal husbandry and environment — have already started discussions to address the gaps in India’s disease surveillance system.
“One Health is an integrated approach to look at humans, wildlife and environment in totality, and not in a fragmented fashion, because there is an interdependence among them. We know from the Covid experience how infection can transmit from animals to humans. So, it is a very connected system,” he added.
‘One Health’, as defined by the US One Health Initiative Task Force, is an approach to encourage “the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally, to attain optimal health for people, animals and our environment”. It is a concept that is gaining recognition not only in India, but also in several other countries.
Instead of just testing humans during a disease breakout, the One Health approach will also monitor wildlife and environment for pathogens or other factors that directly or indirectly affect our health.
Speaking to ThePrint, Dr Sindura Ganapathi, a scientist at the PSA office, further explained that if a pathogen affects livestock or even a crop, it affects the food security of humans.
“So, it is not enough to monitor human health. We have been looking at all these subsystems separately,” said Sood.
“We had a discussion with six ministries that have been working on this for a number of years. We are attempting to see what the gaps in this integrated approach are — this is something that spans across different ministries, different species and different countries,” he added.
All the respective ministries, said Sood, have already been working independently on the different aspects of One Health.
“So, we do not really have to start from scratch,” he said. “Our intention is to identify the gaps and see whether the mission approach can bridge that.”
‘Need a digital network in place’
Karnataka and Uttarakhand have already launched the One Health mission, Sood pointed out.
“We have to see if our surveillance is foolproof. Suppose there is a case somewhere, we have to see if we have the entire digital infrastructure in place,” he added.
The mission will also address the questions of how information about a new potential disease-causing pathogen will be communicated, the stakeholders that should be identified, and who should be in the loop, Sood told ThePrint.
“All that digital network will be set up under this mission, so that there is no gap in the understanding of what is happening and how to take action,” he said. “Once that happens, we also have to look at the remediation methods. Is it something new for which we have to develop a vaccine? Are we ready with vaccine platforms, like mRNA vaccine, or CRISPR-based vaccine platforms?”
Sood also noted that addressing misinformation was an integral part of the exercise. “Communication is very important with the public, it should not hype anything or hide anything,” he said. “That is only possible if we are clear in our mind about what has to be communicated. So that it does not create panic for no reason, but it should also not be so dull and drab that people don’t take notice.”
‘Create the right ecosystem for deep tech start-ups’
Apart from One Health, Sood’s office is also working towards enhancing the research ecosystem for deep tech start-ups.
“The country’s strength will be enhanced when we are the leaders in deep tech start-ups. Advanced materials sciences are what will play a crucial role in developing the nation’s wealth,” the new PSA said.
The role of a deep tech start-up would be to understand the critical properties of new materials and then apply them to design new technologies, he said, citing the example of graphene, a material that became a part of many engineering applications due to its unique properties.
“That is what we are discussing now — how do we make the right ecosystem for deep tech start-ups. What are the policy decisions that need to be taken, what are the things that our researchers will need,” said Sood.
“For example, a deep tech start-up requires a lot of expensive equipment and not every start-up can immediately invest in all that. Our office has started the I-STEM portal, which is being hosted by the Indian institute of Science, Bengaluru,” he added.
The portal allows anyone to access government-funded scientific equipment at nominal costs.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)