The Centre on Thursday said that an article published in The New York Times this week about India’s Covid-19 response was a “provocative” and “attention-seeking” piece, reported PTI.

The article titled “As India’s Lethal Covid Wave Neared, Politics Overrode Science” was published on Tuesday. Citing government researchers and documents, it reported that officials of the Indian Council of Medical Research were forced to downplay the coronavirus threat to “prioritise” Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “political goals”.

In September last year, the article claimed, that government-appointed scientists had played down the possibility of a new Covid-19 outbreak in a study to support the prime minister’s goal of reopening the economy and to begin the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political campaign for Assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory in April-May this year.

At a press briefing on Thursday, Indian Council of Medical Research Director General Dr Balram Bhargava said that the article was published at a time when India was doing well in tackling the pandemic. “All the issues raised are dead ones and probably do not merit any attention,” he claimed.

NITI Aayog Member (Health) Dr VK Paul also criticised the article, saying it was “distorted out of context reporting”.

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said the Centre as well as the state governments were fully committed to tackling the health crisis. “We cannot afford to be diverted by things that can be addressed at a later day which are not a priority from the public health point of view,” he added.

The article

The New York Times report said physician Anup Agarwal, who then worked at the Indian Council of Medical Research and had reviewed the published government study in September 2020, was worried that the it would give a false sense of security to Indians. The article said that Agarwal spoke with officials of the council to flag his concerns. But he and another scientist were reprimanded for it.

“Science is being used as a political weapon to forward the government narrative rather than help people,” Agarwal told the New York Times. He quit the agency in October.

Other scientists interviewed by the newspaper said that they would not get promotions or other opportunities if they questioned their senior officials.

“They pressured scientists to withdraw another study that called the government’s efforts into question, the researchers said, and distanced the agency from a third study that foresaw a second wave,” the article stated.

The Centre was widely criticised for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis. India struggled with a grave oxygen crisis as well as shortages of medical infrastructure such as beds during the second wave of the pandemic that hit the country in April-May.

The acute shortages of the life-saving gas, medicines and beds forced families and friends of patients to plead for help on social media. Hospitals sent out SOS messages and even approached courts for relief as their oxygen stocks ran dangerously low.

At its peak in May, India had recorded more than 4 lakh daily coronavirus cases and the single-day toll was in thousands. Experts had claimed that India was undercounting deaths.

Another report by The New York Times in May had claimed that even in a conservative scenario, India’s toll could be as high as 6 lakh and the tally of infections could be 404.2 million, or 40.42 crore, as of May 24. India’s official coronavirus tally since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 stood at 2.73 crore and 3.15 lakh deaths then.

In March, Harsh Vardhan, the then health minister, had claimed that India was “in the end game of the pandemic”. Modi too had boasted about the huge turnout at an election rally.

The September 14 New York Times article said that Bhargava had issued two orders in July last year that some employees at the Indian Council of Medical Research thought were “politically motivated”.

The first one was to help approve the country’s first indigenous vaccine candidate, Covaxin, for use by India’s Independence Day on August 15. The vaccine, jointly developed by the Hyderabad-based private company Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research, was approved in January this year.

The second one issued in late July 2020 pertained to withholding data that suggested the coronavirus was still spreading in 10 cities, the article said, citing people familiar with the development.

The report said that the data which was released by the Indian Council of Medical Research’s only helped officials incorrectly argue that the coronavirus was not spreading in the country as it did in the United States, Brazil, Britain and France. “Then, last autumn, an agency-approved study wrongly suggested that the worst was over,” the report said.

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Congress seeks judicial inquiry

Citing the The New York Times report, the Congress on Thursday sought a judicial inquiry into the allegations that Modi, Vardhan and officials of the Indian Council of Medical Research fudged data “to build a false narrative that everything was normal” ahead of the second wave of the pandemic, reported PTI.

“We feel that it was because of this reason that the guard was lowered and the state governments were unprepared and so was the general public, because of which there were large number of avoidable deaths during the second wave of coronavirus that caused so much devastation,” party leader Ajay Maken said.

He added: “We could have saved so many lives had the false narrative not started and hence it requires a criminal investigation,” he said.