COVID-19 Special: IndiGen-ous
“I had been interested in genomics since my Bachelor’s and chose it as my specialization during Master’s because of the scope of this field. When I received my first project during PhD, I couldn’t find myself actively engaging in it and my interest wavered. Luckily my supervisor allowed me to work on a different question, more challenging this time. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to take but I am glad I chose this project which has now given me the chance to work with COVID-19.
Our institute got an opportunity to voluntarily participate in COVID-19 testing and research, from the time this pandemic started gaining ground in India. It wasn’t mandatory for us to take part but I was enthusiastic and eventually became a part of the COVID-19 core team.
I had heard from one of my Master’s professors earlier that Indian genomic databases lag behind those of Europe and the US and she had told us we must try to bridge this gap if we ever go into research. Coincidentally, my supervisor felt similarly and that’s how I ended up becoming an active member of the IndiGen program prior to the spread of the novel coronavirus. We had the task of whole genome sequencing of one thousand healthy Indian individuals. The overall aim of IndiGen is to undertake whole genome sequencing of Indians from diverse ethnic groups and form a repository which can eventually help in screening procedures for genetic disease conditions and help during pandemics like COVID-19. We managed to sequence a thousand genomes within six months and currently with the pandemic in place, we are working on its analysis and implementation for the betterment of public health in India.
Apart from that, I regularly distribute personal protective gear (masks, gloves, sanitizers) to the non-academic staff and it feels satisfying explaining to them the science around COVID-19. I also work as an aid-on person for the seniors who have been handling the RNA samples directly.
When we started working on COVID-19, there were a lot of uncertainties and lack of knowledge about the virus and its transmission; we had to optimize everything ranging from experiments to safety protocols. It took time but now we are prepared to chalk out the details of this pandemic no matter what stage it is in.
With modern science and technology I personally don’t think it would take very long to produce the vaccine. Many countries are actively working on it right at this moment.
India is also doing its bit but unfortunately we are significantly setback in our approaches. No one saw the coming of this black swan event and the whole world got hit very hard as we weren’t prepared.
We fear that the worst is yet to come in the country, so we will all soon be actively working on combating the infection and not just be auxiliary to the bigger team. More specifically many of us will be utilizing our genomic expertise in diagnosis and disease surveillance. The coming weeks are going to be really stressful for us. Let’s all hope for the best.”
-Mohit Divakar, PhD in Genomics and Molecular Medicine, Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB), New Delhi
Editor’s Note: The first Indian Genome was announced on 8th November, 2009 in the Indian Parliament by Shri Prithviraj Chauhan, Minister of State (Independent Charge) of Science and Technology.
The objective of IndiGen is to create a pilot dataset to enable genetic epidemiology of carrier genetic diseases and enable affordable carrier screening approaches in India. IndiGen also aims to mine allelic frequencies of genetic variants to estimate the population scale prevalence of these variants. These human genome datasets will also be used for prioritizing pharmacogenomic variants specific for the Indian population. This can be used to optimize therapy and minimize adverse events during drug administrations. It is funded by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
To know more and to participate in the initiative, please visit the website: https://indigen.igib.in/home