Scientists at Bhopal bird flu lab inundated by 4,000 samples a week as Maharashtra culling nears completion

Chicken centre in Berasia Road, Bhopal PHOTO: MAUDE DORR
New Delhi, March 17: In India’s only laboratory equipped to handle the avian influenza H5N1 virus, the cold room is brimming with tiny vials of chicken blood and globs of poultry tissue from across the country.
Several thousand samples arrive each week, packed in ice boxes, from places where farmers have sensed unusual chicken deaths and from routine surveillance sites.
Overwhelmed by the influx, veterinary pathologist Hare Krishna Pradhan, who heads the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal, is fast running out of space and time.
“There is pressure, but my scientists are very good,” said Pradhan.
Six out of the eight rooms in the laboratory are now engaged in H5N1 work, distributed across a dozen scientists. In one room, research associate Nidhi Srivastava performs a test to detect the H5 and N1 genetic signatures of the virus. Scientists S. Nagarajan, B. Pattnaik, and C. Tosh run molecular tests on another set of samples.
“We’ll learn from this experience — it’s preparing us for the future,” said Pradhan.
A molecular biologist from Bilaspur and a virologist from Hissar will join the team next week as research associates on a consolidated salary of Rs 13,000 a month.
Pradhan says the lab can handle a maximum of about 2,000 blood samples and 100 tissue and faecal samples a week. It has been receiving 4,000 samples each week over the past month.
The pressure is forcing Pradhan to pick and choose samples. “The top priority is for samples from sites with mortality,” he said.
“Such pressure is not good when speed is crucial,” said Shahid Jameel, head of virology at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi. “There’s a danger of delays in processing samples.”
The samples from the outbreak in Jalgaon took more than two weeks for a diagnosis to be made because they were waiting. Another such lab, which Pradhan and others experts have suggested for years, could have helped. Biosecurity labs can’t be built in haste.
“From conception to completion, this lab took 25 years,” Pradhan says. It cost about Rs 22 crore. Another now might cost up to Rs 40 crore.

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