Dealing with a ton of information during Covid-19 pandemic was a challenge: WHO chief scientist

The first chief scientist of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Soumya Swaminathan, was at the forefront of waging a war against Covid-19 virus. From clearing the fog around various variants emerging during the last two years to giving update on efficacies of vaccines against the virus, Swaminathan was steering the world through once-in-a-century health emergency.

Swaminathan, an Indian paediatrician and clinical scientist known for her work in tuberculosis and HIV, spoke to Business Today’s Rajat Mishra in an exclusive conversation about challenges she faced in the last two years while working as the WHO chief scientist.

She said that during the pandemic, staying on the top of all information and the data was a challenging task for her.

“I started feeling that challenge very early in January when we started discussing the emergence of cluster of cases in Wuhan. Major challenge for me as a chief scientist was to stay on the top of all information and the data because we were hit by a ton of information which we need to sort out,” Swaminathan said.

She added that the WHO has a huge responsibility on its shoulder.

Swaminathan has more than 350 peer-reviewed publications under her name. In the past, she has worked in various capacities like secretary, Department of Health Research – Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, and Director General of Indian Council of Medical Research (2015-2017), the apex body in India for the formulation, coordination and promotion of Biomedical research.  

Talking about her role, she said, “The whole world depends on WHO for advice, so our advice has to be sound, based on data and evidence, also it has to be fast and it cannot afford to be slow, we should be able to adapt, change and modify the new information available.”

Throwing light on her journey, Swaminathan said that whatever she did in her life was not planned. “It was not a planned journey because everything that has happened in my carrier happened naturally.”

She also shared that how one science project in her childhood reinforced her desire to continue with science and research.  

“My parents had a strong influence on me; the turning point in my life was when I went to Kolkata during my summer holiday. I must have been in class 10 and at that time I did a science project with Dr Archana Sharma. That was a very thrilling experience, the experience of discovery reinforced my desire to continue with science and research,” she said.

While speaking on the gender discrimination, Swaminathan said that she believes that one cannot expect women alone to change the world. She added, “We need men and women both to change the world. I think women need to speak up and assert themselves and men in the decision-making roles have to play even more important role.”

The WHO chief scientist, who was at the helm of the affairs during the outbreak of Covid-19, shared that in her free time, she loves to explore new places especially mountains.  

“I like to go to mountains love to explore new places. I like to be out in nature, basically I find that most relaxing and therapeutic,” she said.

Talking about her future goals, she said, “I want science to serve people whatever fruits we get from science and technology that should be used to make people lives better especially those who are not privileged.”

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