Mumbai's Only Genome Sequencing Lab Is Five Months Old and Fronted by Six Women
Barely four months into launching, the core team at Kasturba Hospital’s genome sequencing lab landed their biggest mission. Meet the women playing a critical role in Maharashtra’s fight against COVID’s latest variant
By Anju Maskeri
Dr Jayanthi Shastri, professor and head of the microbiology department at BYL Nair hospital, was in the US last December to visit her children, when a new COVID variant, Alpha (B.1.1.7), was identified in the UK. It was labelled a “variant of concern” by Public Health England. “That’s when it hit me that this was different from the Wuhan strain, and its transmission might lead to enforcement of travel restrictions,” Dr Shastri remembers. She was able to return the next year just in time to battle a double whammy on home turf: community transmission of the Alpha variant in Mumbai followed by the mega outbreak of Delta, which led to the devastating second COVID wave.
Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) for samples from Maharashtra at the time was being conducted in collaboration with the National Institute of Virology in Pune. “I suggested that we start a WGS lab in Mumbai to the MCGM [Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai or Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation]. We were toying with the idea and trying to put the funds together, when I received an email from Dr Mehul Mehta, chief medical officer at Boston’s Albright Stonebridge Group, and an alumnus of Nair Hospital. He had read about our work at Kasturba Hospital and offered to donate WSG machines from Illumina, a leader in sequencing technology, given that the sequencing technology in Mumbai was abysmal. This was an OMG moment!”