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At the Forefront of the Fight Against COVID-19: Dr. Priya Abraham (Batch ’81)

In November 2019, just two months before the first coronavirus case was detected in India, Dr. Priya Abraham was appointed as the Director of the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune, India. Since then, Dr. Abraham and her team have been actively engaged in various aspects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including diagnostic and vaccine-related efforts.

In an interview with Dr. Honorine Ward (Batch ’69), Dr. Abraham discusses NIV’s leading efforts in diagnostics and vaccine development in India and her leadership at a prominent governmental institution as a CMC alumna.

Dr. Honorine Ward: You and your team at NIV were instrumental in isolating and sequencing one or more strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. How has this enabled NIV to work on developing diagnostics and vaccines for COVID-19?

Dr. Priya Abraham: Successfully isolating the virus in early March gave us the leverage to make our first indigenous ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), at a time when there were no good serological assays. Another big benefit from our ability to isolate and grow the virus was that we successfully propagated 11 or 12 strains in the laboratory – this contributed to the development of a vaccine. We are working closely with Bharat Biotech on a vaccine candidate. Apart from giving them our strain, we have conducted virus challenge experiments as part of pre-clinical trials, which are essential to vaccine development.

With regard to sequencing, the first two sequences from India came out of the first three cases that were detected in this institute. I am privileged to work with great scientists who are comfortable with whole genome sequencing. We’ve been able to look at 700 odd SARS-CoV-2 strains and have also generated about 300 odd sequences to look at the profile of “clades” in our country. It was heartening to know that the real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay that we put together was able to identify all these different varied strains, which meant it was robust enough as a diagnostic tool.

H: And have you been able to develop new rapid tests?

P: Right now, we do not have a rapid test, but we have developed a real time PCR Kit, where we have put together the probe, the primers, and the right concentration of enzymes. We have in fact standardized it such that instead of running the PCR in three-to-four tubes, where we are looking at different genes of SARS-CoV-2, it’s been standardized so that all the different genes are amplified in one tube. Therefore, you can run many more samples at one go, in a single plate. This assay has been validated by WHO, and we received a 100% performance rating. We have packaged it as ICMR-NIV’s kit.

H: NIV played a key role in empowering diagnostic laboratories for SARSCOV-2, as well as for antibody testing across the country. Have these efforts played a significant role in supporting efforts to trace and isolate cases?

P: In 2016, the Indian government set up a network of virus reference diagnostic laboratories, meant to be geared for outbreak response. This network was really handy to have around.

When we found our first cases, it was a very intense period of empowering some of these laboratories scattered across the country. There were a flurry of questions and clarifications they wanted from us, so we ran a QC/QA program for them. That was a very demanding time, but now these laboratories are doing a fantastic job. We started with training and hand-holding 13 labs, and today several government labs are using this assay. We’ve shipped out around 5.7 million PCR reactions to the length and breadth of the country.

H: What are the major challenges you have faced and the lessons you have learned from this pandemic?

P: One of the major challenges in early times was the timely procurement of reagents, particularly probes, good quality primers, and RNA extraction kits. This was because the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was looking to us to procure and ship out PCR kits and run a quality control. Procurement of materials from overseas when flights were grinding to a halt was extremely challenging.

Regarding lessons learned, I know it sounds cliché, but I think to function amidst these challenges, there’s nothing like good team building. One must encourage one’s team and get even the more reticent team members back onto the center stage!

H: CMC faculty, like yourself and Dr. Gagandeep Kang, have taken leadership positions in prominent governmental institutions in India. What does this imply for CMC’s prominence at the national level, and where do you see CMC and India’s science in healthcare when benchmarked internationally?

P: Well, I would say for one that CMC alumni have held and will continue to hold positions in government institutions of national repute. I believe that the government will reach out to CMC whenever they think the necessary expertise is required. I think yes, CMC will influence policy at the national level.

CMC’s clinical laboratories are all nationally accredited. Clinical Virology, Clinical Microbiology and Clinical Biochemistry and the Transfusion Medicine laboratory are quality assurance providers for the whole country: hundreds of labs approach CMC laboratories for quality assurance.

If we look at India, I think the country will have a big role to play in making SARS-CoV-2 vaccines for the world. The Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine team is working with Serum Institute of India. In fact, the Serum Institute of India has also approached us for help. They are going to be making an indigenous vaccine, and we will be giving them our full support.

While no one has landed on the right antiviral agent yet, I do know that when we do, India will run with it and will provide bulk manufacturing at an affordable price. I’m confident India will do that for the rest of the world.

I hope they see in me a leader who’s trying to take the entire team along and I hope they see a little of what we have imbibed from CMC, and that is the culture of hard work, sincerity and integrity.

H: As a woman in India, how does your prominent visibility serve as a role model for young Indian women who want to become scientists?

P: I hope they see in me a leader who’s trying to take the entire team along and I hope they see a little of what we have imbibed from CMC, and that is the culture of hard work, sincerity and integrity.

When we are in a prominent position like this, they need to see a bit of our work culture. We should be approachable and available to all, even for our younger scientists. So, I’ve been trying to do that. My job is not complete…

I hope they’re seeing a good reflection of somebody who’s trying to balance work with family. I carve out time every evening, to catch up with my family in Vellore. At work, I am trying to be a good human being and also do some science!

Watch the full interview with Dr. Priya Abraham:

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