Among the various scientific departments under the direct control of the Central government, the Department of Health Research (DHR), an important arm within the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, received the fewest funds to carry out research and development in the priority areas of national health and epidemics.
More shockingly, only Rs seven crore has been earmarked this year for the development of tools and support to prevent outbreak of pandemics like coronavirus. Last year, that amount was Rs six crore. And this is just one aspect of the poor state of the country's health research system.
The DHR, in its demand for grants document, argued that low allocation under the head of developing tools and support to prevent outbreaks is primarily due to specific proposals received from states, medical colleges and research institutes for supply of diagnostic kits, training of staff, collection of samples and procurement of reagents for testing samples.
The DHR's main organisation, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is at the forefront of the ongoing battle against COVID-19 and is responsible for establishing a network of research labs to manage epidemics and natural calamities also known as Viral Research and Diagnostic Laboratories (VRDLs).
The health research budget last year was Rs 1,950 crore and of that, ICMR received Rs 1,552 crore. This year, there is a slight increase in the budget for health research: Rs 2,100 crore has been allocated.
Interestingly, the ICMR had asked for more money to establish additional VRDLs and set up new Multi-Disciplinary Research Units (MRUs) in Medical Colleges to enhance the capacity for early identification and diagnosis of all viral infections.
The ICMR asked for Rs 2,300 crore this year but it was allocated only Rs 1,795 crore, which created a shortfall of Rs 669 crore. In comparison, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is spending more than $39 billion annually on health research. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic body with 36 member countries, observed in its 2019 report that India's total public spending on health care stands below 1.5 percent of GDP, which is alarming.
This scarce amount to set up diagnostic laboratories sets back viral research in several ways. The ICMR has to set up 19 new viral research laboratories and 10 multi-disciplinary research units in medical colleges this year, besides carrying out trials and other research work like high-risk pathogens that can be used in bio-terrorism and investigation into outbreaks like COVID-19.
The DHR data shows 106 VRDLs are functional, far too few for a country of 130 crore people. And, as far COVID-19 test are concerned, in January, only 10 labs were equipped to conduct testing for coronavirus. On 11 February, the DHR told the Cabinet six more labs were being provided with necessary requirements to initiate testing soon.
This is precisely the reason why so few tests have been conducted — and so slowly — for COVID-19. So far, ICMR carried out 820 random sample tests to determine community spread. Last year too, the proposal for scaling up budget to set up new laboratories to manage epidemics and national calamities was met with a cold response. Initially, Rs 80 crore was allocated for new labs, but it was reduced to Rs 73 crore in the revised budget estimate.
The DHR data reviewed by Firstpost shows the department equally shares the blame for such low expenditure on research and creation of infrastructure to deal with outbreaks like COVID-19. Last year, the DHR was able to utilise merely 78 percent of its budget allocated by the government.
As far as establishing new laboratories for testing new threats, the budget utilisation was even lower: at 74 percent. Then there is perennial bureaucratic quagmire which delayed submission of proposals for new labs and considerable time taken by the concerned medical colleges to allocate space for multi-disciplinary research units.
Till December 2019, multi-disciplinary units have been established in only 80 government medical colleges across the country. According to government data, the country has approximately 384 medical colleges in various states. The government can simplify the procedures for sanctioning new projects, but that has not been done.
ICMR had also proposed to take up the projects to establish viral labs network in command hospitals under Indian Army to ensure that armed forces are prepared to detect viruses that can be used by enemy countries for bio-terrorism. However, the government needs to invest more money in ICMR and overall health research sector in order to achieve the targets.
Updated Date: Mar 20, 2020 16:03:25 IST