A scientist, best known for sequencing the first Indian genome, launched a group of open-source data resources online for researchers locked at home to fight the virus head-on
Dr Vinod Scaria
Vinod Scaria, 39
Scientist, CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology
It was as early as January 2020 when Vinod Scaria and his team at Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB) knew that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was weeks from hitting India. They had to understand the novel Coronavirus better and fast if diagnostics had to keep pace with the spread. But with the nationwide lockdown, their Delhi lab was shuttered. Of the team of 12, a handful were allowed to work from office. The rest had to manage from home with no infrastructure available to them.
In the absence of resources and technology, Scaria realised that scientists like him desperately needed an open-source initiative, where primary research on the virus could be made available to anyone. "Like most professionals, scientists too were stuck at home. We all wanted to work urgently on the virus, but couldn't. Putting up primary information online was the first step to fight the virus head-on," he says.
Dr Vinod Scaria FRSB is an Indian researcher pioneering in precision medicine and clinical genomic
By April, the COVID-19 Open Research, Data and Resources initiative had been launched. At first, they put out simple data, including comprehensive information on testing centres that was made available by the government. A map presented the centre locations at a glance. They followed it up with an app called COVID-19 Connect to help people and experts track the daily number of new infections and deaths in every district of the country. While that app has now been retired, it is available on GooglePlay. Scaria, who is recognised as a pioneer in clinical genomics in India, next wanted to make information about the virus sequences public. "We assembled genome samples from across the world and put them together in a dataset on our open platform," he says.
The big introduction was the launch of Genomepedia, a search platform that allows you to search for genomes from across anywhere in the world, the country of origin, and even the ID of the sequence. He says, "It is like Google for genome dataset. All these resources we have introduced require continuous work."
Some states, Scaria explains, are ahead of the others in the getting-the-better-of-the-virus game. Kerala, for instance, plans to conduct genome sequencing to better understand the mutation of the novel Coronavirus and validate the policies implemented to contain its transmission, in association with Scaria and team. The objective of the study is to identify outbreaks, ways to contain transmission, and confirm the efficiency of the steps taken to mitigate the spread. Genome sequencing maps minute changes in the virus to identify particular types. "It's the first time that regular surveillance of this kind is being done in India. The study will be based on molecular contact tracing, which will help trace the origin of the infection."