New Delhi: They are not virologists or involved in medical research, but a team of around 400 scientists has come up with different ways to bolster India’s attempts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.
They are busting coronavirus-related myths — a major menace in current times — besides using government data to derive calculated estimates about the spread of the disease. Other contributions include manufacturing masks and low-cost ventilators, which constitute crucial equipment for health workers on the frontlines of the battle as well as patients.
The initiative, named ‘Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19’, draws members from the country’s top institutions — like the Indian Institutes of Science and Education Research (IISERs), the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), including the branches at Bombay, Kanpur and Banaras Hindu University, the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and Homi Bhabha Centre For Science Education, Mumbai — besides others in Europe and the US.
It was started by Professor R. Ramanujam, who teaches at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSC) in Chennai.
“The idea was to involve all those who are outside the medical fraternity to do work on coronavirus,” Ramanujam told ThePrint. “I, along with some others, reached out to the scientific community and we received an overwhelming response. We may not be virologists or working in the field of medicine but all of us wanted to contribute to the research in some way.”
Data interpretation to explain the rate of virus spread
A key aspect of the team’s work is explaining the spread of the coronavirus through data interpretation. For this, they take the number of deaths from government records to make a “calculated guess” about the possible number of coronavirus-infected persons.
“It’s like a calculated guess… by looking at the number of serious cases, one assumes the number of people who are likely to be affected, because not everyone is being tested,” said Dr Shankar R., a retired IMSC professor.
The team is also working to derive the rate at which the virus is spreading in various regions.
“When people look at the data related to Covid-19 cases, they just see the numbers growing, but what is more crucial is knowing the rate at which the numbers are growing,” said Dr Shankar.
“We are studying the rate of increase in confirmed cases region-wise, to give a clear understanding to the common public about the spread of the disease.”
The group of scientists is hopeful the data interpretation will help the government in research and policy formation. “We are putting out all the research on our website and we hope that once the data interpretation is more sharpened it could be used by the government agencies,” Shankar added.
Meanwhile, some other scientists who are part of the collective have been working on developing low-cost ventilators, masks and other equipment in their own labs, with the help of the resources available at the institutes where they work.
The collective has so far busted multiple myths, a drive they primarily carry out through WhatsApp and their website. To ensure wider reach, their messages are composed in multiple languages, including English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada and Urdu.
The myths tackled include the rumour that “Covid-19 spreads through pet animals”. They have concluded this as being “not true”, explaining their assessment with the following explanation: “Without a sick person in close contact, dogs, cats, typical pets and even livestock do not transmit this novel coronavirus.”
Dr Reetika Sud, a scientist from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru who is a part of the hoax-buster team, explained how they went about the task.
“When we started working on myth-busters, we asked everyone to pool in the most common myths they have heard… most of them were either through WhatsApp forwards and some… through regional media channels,” she said.
“We picked the most common ones and started working on each of them by trying to find out available research supporting or negating each of the claims,” Sud added. “Wherever we had enough evidence, we have given a definitive answer, but where we did not have enough evidence, we have mentioned the same.”
For example, weighing in on reports about the role of air-conditioning in spreading the virus, the team says there isn’t enough to arrive at a conclusion. The conclusions for some other rumours go thus: Cow urine protects you from coronavirus (not true), Indians have more immunity against the virus (most likely false), practising yoga helps protect you against the virus (most likely false), virus doesn’t spread in warmer climes (most likely false).
“This exercise was to make common people understand the disease in a better way, without believing in myths and rumours,” said Sud.
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