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Dr Priya Abraham: For the love of virology

As the head of the National Institute of Virology, her team came across the first sample of Covid-19 in India and isolated the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Abraham on how virology can help cure diseases from infections to cancer, and more

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: Dec 1, 2021 11:59:30 AM IST
Updated: Dec 2, 2021 12:33:00 PM IST

Dr Priya Abraham: For the love of virologyDr Priya Abraham, director of the National Institute of Virology
Image: Anirudha Karmakar for Forbes India

There was a pack of jackals,” laughs Dr Priya Abraham as she recalls her idyllic childhood spent on the wooded campus meant for employees of an American oil company in Vishakhapatnam. “Holidays were about climbing trees, playing in the open, climbing rocks and learning to swing on the roots of banyan trees… the ground rule, of course, was to come home by the time the streetlights came on.”

Abraham, the 58-year-old director of the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune, has been spearheading the work of the institute, which has been at the forefront of the country’s battle with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Barely two months after she joined NIV in November 2019, the institute came across a sample that would eventually be confirmed as the first Covid-19 case in the country. Now, more than a year-and-a-half, and two pandemic waves, later, Abraham talks about the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic, the importance of teamwork, and why virology is where multiple fields converge.

“Paediatrics and infectious diseases were my first love, but viruses have grabbed more attention in recent years,” says the alumnus of Christian Medical College, Vellore. “Virology is where the greatest challenges and triumphs have taken place, and it has helped in the expansion of our understanding of medicine, science, agriculture and several related fields. Virology is spectacular, and by understanding the biology of viruses, you also get to understand the biology of the cells in which viruses grow. This also helps us find cures to other diseases, such as cancer.” She goes on to highlight that all major pandemics in the history of humankind—except plague and cholera—have been caused by viruses.

Dr Priya Abraham: For the love of virologyWhere Covid-19 is concerned, Abraham feels the biggest challenge for the NIV has been to have trained staff for the job at hand: “I was juggling between groups to ensure they had trained people.” But, she adds, the most positive aspect as a scientist was—apart from many other firsts at NIV—the thrill of isolating the SARS-CoV-2 virus, characterising it, and working with pharma companies for studies and clinical trials. “It has given us a tremendous boost in confidence.”

What the process has also highlighted, says Abraham, is that none of this can be achieved without teamwork. “I cannot bask in this glory myself; there is a huge team behind me and the strength of teamwork has been drawn into focus,” she says, stressing on the importance of having a personal connect with everyone.

It is this personal connect that Abraham is able to establish with her team and colleagues that enables her to bring together different scientists to work as a team, says Dr Sarah Cherian, Scientist F at NIV. “Dr Abraham has a lot of humility, and no ego, which makes it possible for others to speak their minds. Whenever she presents any work, she always gives due credit to the teams, and provides opportunities even at individual levels that allow them to grow.”  

Given the outbreak of the Covid-19, along with more localised outbreaks such as the Nipah and Zika viruses, Abraham feels that forecasting the possible diseases that could happen in our region is important. “Knowing our environment and ecology, we should have the capacity to forecast what is most likely to hit us. And also to find the prime drivers that could hasten the process of virus or microbial agents that could cause these huge outbreaks,” she says.

Dr Priya Abraham: For the love of virology

“It’s important to disseminate the concept that human health, animal health and the environment are delicately intertwined. This is embodied in what is called the ‘one health approach’.” Abraham adds common people should be made aware of the concepts of deforestation and foraying into densely-forested areas that put people at risk of picking up diseases that could jump from animals. “Seventy percent of human diseases in future are likely to come from animals,” she says.

(This story appears in the 03 December, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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