International Day of Epidemic Preparedness 2021: December 27 is marked as the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness. Preparedness for pandemic has always been an important aspect for health authorities across the globe. In the past, outbreaks of diseases like Zika Virus, Swine Flu, etc., have led to countries taking precautions and increasing their vigil. However, it was the coronavirus pandemic breakout that started two years ago that really brought forth the need for a robust epidemic preparedness strategy. It is for the awareness of this aspect that the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness is marked.
This year would mark the second year that this day is observed, after the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness was marked in 2020 based on a call for it made by the United Nations General Assembly. According to global health body WHO, the day marks the significance of preventing, preparing for and partnering against epidemics.
Preparedness for epidemics is important to prevent the healthcare structures across the world from collapsing under the increased burden that usually accompanies epidemics, as also seen in the case of the second wave of COVID-19 in India earlier this year.
This leads us to the question. Is India prepared for epidemics and what is its preparedness strategy?
International Day of Epidemic Preparedness 2021: India’s strategy
As the coronavirus pandemic, though two years in, is still developing, especially in light of the new Omicron variant, health authorities in the country are not necessarily commenting on how well-equipped the country is to deal with a possible third wave. However, a look at India’s past Preparedness and Response guidelines for Zika Virus issued by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare as well as the policy the country followed during the COVID-19 pandemic, shows that the preliminary response of Indian health authorities for any epidemic or fast-spreading disease is to, understandably, conduct surveillance at points of entry into the country, like border crossings, ports and airports to identify people coming from affected countries and suffering from fever or any other symptom of the disease in question. Such people are then sent to the nearest health unit.
Meanwhile, as in the action plan for Zika and as done during COVID-19, the health authorities prepare personnel and Rapid Response teams to undertake surveillance within the community and investigate any outbreak.
The next level in the action plan for Zika was for the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) and its designated labs to test predetermined clinical samples of fever cases (tested negative for Dengue and Chikungunya) to be tested for Zika. For those who might recall, a similar measure was also taken for coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic. However, at this stage, it is important to note that the country’s preparedness did not necessarily prove to be quite adequate with reference to the scale of the coronavirus pandemic as laboratories initially fell short of the required testing that needed to be conducted. Still, it is to the credit of Indian health authorities that India rapidly increased the number of labs and the testing capacity exponentially, which is something that can now help India be better prepared for any future epidemic.
Apart from this, the Union Ministry of Science and Technology’s Department of Biotechnology also supports the implementation of Ind-CEPI Mission programme on Epidemic preparedness through rapid vaccine development. The Ind-CEPI Mission had been approved in March 2019.
As per the Ind-CEPI MIssion’s Epidemic preparedness through rapid vaccine development guidelines, the mission aims to provide strength to vaccine development for diseases having epidemic potential in India. It also looks to coordinate the preparedness for epidemic in the public health system of the country as well as the vaccine industry. As per its objectives, the mission aims to support the development of a minimum of two to three new vaccines for potential outbreak threats up to the second phase of testing in a span of five years.
It also looks to strengthen the infrastructure needed to develop vaccines via academia-industry interface, while also supporting skill development as well as capacity building.
“Strengthening internal inter-ministerial co-ordination for rapid vaccine development and testing to address known and unknown infectious disease threats,” is also an objective listed under the mission, along with, “Strengthening of development frameworks, surveillance and logistics for use of new vaccines, where appropriate.”
According to the Department of Biotechnology, the Ind-CEPI mission has provided financial support to Gennova’s mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate HGCO19, as well.
India has been able to delay, if not entirely defy, a third wave of the pandemic with the help of a strong vaccination drive across the country, and with the Ind-CEPI mission, it seems like India is hoping to ensure that such quick vaccine development can be undertaken for any potential epidemic at a later stage as well, which can be a strong point in India’s epidemic preparedness.
On the other hand, the second wave of coronavirus exposed several shortcomings of the healthcare sector in the country, with beds, medicines as well as oxygen falling short of the demand. Though it is true that the magnitude of the second wave was unprecedentedly high, it is also true that healthcare systems across the country fell short by a wide margin.
Since the Centre is not yet commenting on the preparedness of the country in dealing with a third wave or with Omicron, it is yet to be seen what lessons India has learnt from the massive COVID wave that India dealt with earlier this year.