Dr Soumya Swaminathan: The Unsung Heroin In Battle Against COVID 

When the pandemic hit the world, countries viewed the World Health Organisation as their main authority. Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the organisation’s first Indian Deputy Director-General, became a recognisable face in an uncertain world. In March 2019, Soumya became the first Chief Scientist at the international health body, a fortunate appointment that happened just before the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged a few months later.  

She is an Indian pediatrician who has received global recognition for her research on tuberculosis and HIV. With over 30 years of experience, she has excelled in clinical care, research, and leadership. Throughout her career, she has emphasised integrating science and evidence-based practices into health policy-making. With more than 350 peer-reviewed articles and chapters, Dr. Saumya is also regarded as an esteemed author. Additionally, she has been honoured by being elected as a Foreign Fellow of the US National Academy of Medicine and three science academies in India.

From her position at the top of the World’s public health authority, she gained a worldwide view of the pandemic response and the communities suffering the most due to limited healthcare access. She supervised the development process of vaccines, countered the spread of false information, and organised efforts among world leaders and her scientific team at the WHO to respond to the pandemic. Her efforts during the intense spread of the deadly Delta variant led to her recognition as one of Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in 2021. 

As Chief Scientist of WHO, Dr. Soumya became the central figure connecting scientific knowledge with practical steps. She regularly participated in press conferences, providing safety advisories to media outlets worldwide and explaining the situation at different pandemic stages. In 2019, after becoming the first chief scientist of the World Health Organisation (WHO), she established a science division entirely from scratch. This division now exists within WHO and is complemented by a science council that offers advice to the director-general on crucial scientific matters. During the COVID-19 pandemic of the last three years, WHO’s scientific contributions have gained increased recognition under Dr. Soumya’s guidance. They have provided ongoing guidelines for current treatments and initiated worldwide trials to explore the potential of existing medications in treating the disease.

While sharing her experiences and challenges in her role (First Chief Scientist) at WHO to a digital publication (The Print), she said, “The role of the Chief Scientist was not defined. And so I found myself listening in the early days of January, sitting with my emergency colleagues, as they were getting data from China. I was just sitting there and listening. And as it evolved, it became clear that this is a major threat to the world”. 

Before moving to Geneva to work at the WHO, Soumya Swaminathan had already established an impressive reputation in public health. Her achievements stood out independently from those of her father, MS Swaminathan, known for leading the Green Revolution in the 1960s, which modernised India’s agricultural systems and boosted food production. Before joining the WHO in October 2017 as its first Indian Deputy Director-General of Programmes, Dr Soumya was the Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) between 2015 and 2017. 

After serving for five years, Dr. Soumya concluded her tenure at the World Health Organisation (WHO) on November 30, 2022. She then assumed the role of chairperson at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), an institution established by her father, MS Swaminathan. In the months since Dr. Soumya took over, the foundation has made swift progress in executing its projects. Notable achievements of the foundation include initiatives to enhance biodiversity in specific agriculturally diverse areas, monitoring climate change data, and addressing gender-related concerns within sustainable development efforts.

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