Dr Balram Bhargava, director general of the ICMR | Photo: ANI
Dr Balram Bhargava, Director General of the ICMR | Photo: ANI
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New Delhi: When National Institute of Virology (NIV) Director Priya Abraham first isolated the SARS-CoV-2 and saw it under a microscope, she described it as “a pretty virus”, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director General Balram Bhargava said.

Recalling the NIV scientist’s reaction when the virus first entered India, Bhargava said Abraham was very nervous when trying to confirm if she had isolated the first sample of the novel coronavirus.

“I think she (Abraham) was not happy anytime between 27 and 29 January — when she was testing for that virus,” he said.

Bhargava said the ICMR was waiting to announce to the whole country if the SARS-CoV-2 had indeed entered the country. However, before breaking the news, they had to repeatedly test to be absolutely certain.

Finally, when Abraham saw the virus under an electron microscope, she thought it was “very pretty”.

This is among the many anecdotes and insights Bhargava mentioned in a conversation with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on Off the Cuff Saturday as he discussed his latest book Going Viral: The Inside story of Covaxin.

Talking about the challenges faced during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bhargava highlighted the lack of monkeys for animal trials. He said a new facility is now being set up to tackle this. 

He also said that the idea of vaccinating children is still being debated as there are concerns over their safety. Moreover, he noted that the sero survey in children showed antibodies in fair numbers.

Bhargava also expressed regret over his communication during the pandemic, especially over the “deadline” that was given to Covaxin makers.


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Breeding monkeys

Bhargava spoke about how the ICMR team had to catch monkeys from the forests of Maharashtra for the animal trials, since India does not have its own breeding centres. Taking a lesson from this, Bhargava said the ICMR is now setting up an animal breeding laboratory in India.

“China is the world capital for breeding monkeys. Animal trials in the US are done on monkeys from China. We have now set up a huge facility in Hyderabad on more than 100 acres of land. We will be breeding horses, monkeys, rodents, sheep, goats, etc,” Bhargava said.

He added that this facility is likely to be inaugurated next month. Another facility for breeding monkeys will also be set up in Mumbai, said the ICMR DG.


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On vaccination in children

Asked about the status of approving vaccination in children, Bhargava said the idea is still under consideration.

“We are debating this idea. There are several systems and committees which look at it. Not many countries have started using children’s vaccines,” he said. “We have done the sero survey in children where we have found a fair percentage of antibodies in more than 50 per cent.”

Bhargava pointed out that many countries in the European nations had not closed down schools for children. He added that very young children are protected because they have less number of ACE receptors, which facilitates the entry of the virus.

“In older children, we have seen that the antibodies have been there,” he said.

He highlighted that the vaccine has side effects. Studies have shown that the mRNA vaccine can trigger myocarditis (heart inflammation) in rare cases and the AstraZeneca vaccine has been linked to blood clots.

“So, we have to be careful before we give it to our children,” the ICMR DG said. “I somehow feel that maybe a killed virus vaccine like Covaxin maybe useful in children. Hopefully, if that is approved, we should have that soon also for children.”

On better communication

Bhargava also said that he regretted not having been a better communicator during the pandemic.

He said the controversial letter signed by him last year, which appeared to set a deadline for Covaxin researchers to get the vaccine ready by 15 August, was “well-intentioned” to give a nudge to the team. But he agreed that it could have been worded better.

Bhargava also noted that ICMR received requests for testing several bizarre therapies, some of which included getting piercings or wearing some kind of a stone.

There was a lot of pressure from some science groups to conduct trials for such theories, and they also wanted these trials to show positive results, Bhargava said.


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