New Delhi: As the world reels from the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, which has also induced an economic recession, there are many working tirelessly at the forefront to tackle the challenge. In India, several women are working round-the-clock, seven days a week, to ensure the smooth functioning of key departments — administration, diagnosis, prevention, research and cure.
ThePrint takes a look at some of those leading these efforts.
Preeti Sudan, secretary at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has been working on aligning all departments to execute the Narendra Modi government’s policies to prevent the spread of the disease. Beela Rajesh, health secretary of Tamil Nadu, has been proactive in engaging with citizens through her department and Twitter. The state currently has more than 600 active cases, one of the highest in the country.
Dr Priya Abraham, director of National Institute of Virology, Pune, has made a significant medical breakthrough by isolating the deadly coronavirus. This helps in understanding the disease better and finding treatment regimens.
Dr Nivedita Gupta, senior scientist at Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), is busy designing the treatment and testing protocols for the country while Dr Renu Swarup, secretary, Department of Biotechnology, is spending her time trying to find a vaccine.
A 1983 batch IAS officer from the Andhra Pradesh cadre, Sudan is usually seen leaving her office at Nirman Bhawan late at night.
An M.Phil. in Economics and postgraduate in Social Policy and Planning from the London School of Economics, Sudan also served the World Bank in Washington as a consultant.
Her ministry is the nodal agency for fighting the present coronavirus challenge. Sudan, along with Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, coordinates with sister departments in the central and state government. The two conduct regular reviews of the evolving situation.
“She is also involved in the regular review of preparedness with the states and union territories. Also, she is the first point of contact for any query arising from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office or from the office of Union Minister,” said a senior official from her ministry who did not wish to be identified.
“She played a major role in the evacuation of the 645 students from Wuhan, China,” the official added.
Among her cadre, Sudan has a distinguished track record of serving in finance, disaster management, tourism and agriculture.
Dr Nivedita Gupta
Working in the Division of Epidemiology & Communicable Diseases, and in-charge of viral diseases at the country’s apex health research department, Dr Gupta’s primary responsibility is building testing and treatment protocols in India.
She was also the primary scientist involved in the investigations and containment of the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala last year.
An MBBS from Lady Hardinge Medical College, Dr Gupta is the key person to augment the Covid-19 diagnostic capacity all across the country. In the short time span of two months, over 130 laboratories in the government sector and 52 laboratories in the private sector were roped in to diagnose coronavirus cases.
“She worked day and night, including Sundays, to investigate the Nipah cases last year. It was not even a pandemic like coronavirus. Nowadays, for several days together, several scientists stay in the office to conclude the investigations, including her,” said an official in her department, also on the condition of anonymity.
Gupta has a PhD in molecular medicine from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has been instrumental in setting up the virus research and diagnostic laboratory network of ICMR. This network was established subsequent to the 2009 pandemic influenza outbreak. The Virus Research and Diagnostic Laboratory (VRDL) network of 106 laboratories is largely considered as the backbone of the nation, and has ensured the capacity to detect the virus in almost all parts of the country.
Dr Gupta has aggressively investigated the viral outbreaks such as enteroviruses, arboviruses (dengue, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis & Zika), influenza, measles and rubella among others. She was part of the team that worked extensively on deciphering the aetiology, and developed management guidelines, for the acute encephalitis syndrome in different parts of India.
Swarup has been working at the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) for the past 30 years. She held the position of Scientist ‘H’ — which denotes an outstanding scientist — until April 2018, when she was appointed as secretary.
A key person in the formulation of the Biotechnology Vision in 2001, the National Biotechnology Development Strategy in 2007 and Strategy II in 2015-20, Swarup is now involved in the crucial research to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
In an interview to ThePrint, Swarup had said that she is busy scaling up the manufacturing capacity of start-ups that have made low-cost testing kits and ventilators for Covid-19.
Her ministry has asked all IIT incubators to focus on research and development of portable ventilators, genome sequencing and isolation of the strain of the novel coronavirus from blood samples.
A PhD in Genetics and Plant Breeding, Swarup is known for promoting women in science, and was a member of the Task Force on Women in Science, which was constituted by the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister.
Abraham leads the backbone of the country right now — the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, which is affiliated to the ICMR. The NIV was initially the only testing centre in the country for Covid-19.
As the number of cases spike on a daily basis, the NIV has succeeded in reducing the testing time of Covid-19 samples to just four hours a sample from 12-14 hours.
The NIV had confirmed the first three positive Covid-19 cases in India. The institute had initially done all the testing, but ICMR subsequently increased the number of laboratories, anticipating a jump in cases. Under Abraham’s leadership, the NIV helped these labs with troubleshooting, and ensured reagent supplies to the network of labs.
“The achievements which NIV has made at this crucial juncture were not possible without a hardworking and well-coordinated team,” Abraham told ThePrint.
Abraham holds an MBBS, MD (Medical Microbiology) and PhD from Christian Medical College in Vellore, where she was also the former head of the department of Clinical Virology at CMC Vellore. She is also a fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists and Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. On invitation from the Medical Council of India, Abraham also drafted the syllabus for the Doctor of Medicine (DM) in Virology.
Her achievements also include being a key member of the WHO’s Guidelines Development Working Group Meeting for Hepatitis and HIV in 2012, and for Hepatitis B in 2014. In 2017, she served as WHO consultant in Myanmar to formulate the National Hepatitis Testing.
As the health secretary of Tamil Nadu, Rajesh has been at the forefront of tackling the challenge in her state.
A 1997 batch IAS officer, she is known as a media-friendly bureaucrat and is very active on Twitter.
“Virus can affect anyone, let’s be gentle and sensitive towards each other and wage a coordinated battle against Covid19,” she posted recently.
Apart from sharing her thoughts, she also responds to queries directed at her or her department.
An MBBS graduate from Madras Medical College, Beela earlier served as sub-collector of Chengalpattu, commissioner of Fisheries and commissioner of Town and Country Planning in Tamil Nadu. She was also the commissioner of Indian Medicine and Homeopathy before being transferred as the health secretary in 2019.
Tamil Nadu ranks third among all Indian states in the NITI Aayog Health Index given its vastly improved health outcomes.
Under Rajesh, the Tamil Nadu Health System Reform Program was set up with the state government, Centre and World Bank signing a $287 million loan agreement in June 2019. The program aims to improve the quality of health care, reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and fill equity gaps in reproductive and child health services in Tamil Nadu.