WHO chief scientist wanted to be a vet

Dr Soumya Swaminathan has been at the forefront of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) fight against Covid-19 - advising countries about the medical steps to take and commenting about the effectiveness of vaccines.

The Indian, who became the United Nations body's first chief scientist in March last year, is noted for her scientific knowledge and work in medicine - especially related to paediatrics, tuberculosis and prioritising digital technology to improve healthcare.

But the 61-year-old, who was born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, revealed to SciDev.Net that she actually wanted to be a veterinarian.

"I love animals and so I enrolled for a bachelor's degree in zoology at Delhi University," she said. "I entered medical school quite by chance after all my classmates were preparing for the medical entrance exam, so I sat for it too."

She went on to study medicine at the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune and then completed her MD in paediatrics from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi and a post-doctoral medical fellowship in neonatology and paediatric pulmonology at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Since 2009, she has held high positions in the Indian government and the WHO.

Previously, she was deputy director-general for programmes at WHO and served as secretary to the Indian government for health research and as director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research. She also headed the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis (NIRT) in Chennai, which she joined in 1992.

On Monday, Dr Swaminathan drew on her vast scientific knowledge to warn that it will take time to produce and administer enough vaccine doses to halt the spread of Covid-19 and that herd immunity would not be achieved this year.

Her response came after several countries indicated that they were looking forward to vaccines finally allowing a return to normalcy.

"We are not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021," she told a virtual press briefing from WHO's headquarters in Geneva, stressing the need to continue measures like physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing to rein in the pandemic.

She hailed the "incredible progress" made by scientists who managed the unthinkable by developing not one but several safe and effective vaccines against a brand new virus in under a year. But, she stressed, the roll-out "does take time".

"It takes time to scale the production of doses, not just in the millions, but here we are talking about in the billions," she pointed out, calling on people to "be a little bit patient".

As the daughter of Prof M.S. Swaminathan, a geneticist regarded as the father of India's Green Revolution for his role in developing high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, she is no stranger to high scientific research.

Dr Swaminathan told SciDev.Net that it was childhood trips to her father's lab and experimental wheat fields that ignited her passion in medical research. "I hope to further the use of science, technology and innovation in improving healthcare delivery," she said.

"Now that people in the remotest areas of the world have mobile phones, we can leapfrog into an era of rapid information flow with virtual contact between patients and doctors."

In medical school, she was drawn to children and wanted to be able to work with those who did not have a voice. "I wanted to work where clinical skills were important in making a correct diagnosis," she told SciDev.Net. "I enjoyed clinical medicine but found research exciting and challenging.

"My love for clinical research grew at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles... after which I never looked back."

Unlike other Indian doctors who trained abroad, she and her husband (orthopaedic surgeon Ajit Yadav) were very clear that they would return to India and work there.

After a year at the Leicester Royal Infirmary in the United Kingdom, Dr Swaminathan returned to India in 1991 and a year later found her niche at NIRT. During her time there, she and her colleagues were among the first to scale up the use of molecular diagnostics for TB surveillance and undertake large field trials of community-randomised strategies to deliver TB treatment to under-served communities.

"I acquired my love of research from watching students discussing their research work with my father in the evenings at our house," she told SciDev.Net. "They would take (my sisters and me) to the lab (and) the experimental wheat fields and let us accompany them on field trips."

Her mother Meena, a pre-school educationist, also instilled in her a sense of social responsibility and sensitivity to those who were less fortunate. "We accompanied her to construction sites where she helped set up creches for the children of the construction site workers. She taught us to be inquisitive, creative and bold - and to stand up for our beliefs," said Dr Swaminathan.

Indo-Asian News Service, AFP

"I love animals and so I enrolled for a bachelor's degree in zoology at Delhi University.

I entered medical school quite by chance after all my classmates were preparing for the medical entrance exam, so I sat for it too."

- Dr Soumya Swaminathan

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