Swaminathan to quit WHO, return to India for ‘hands-on’ work

India News

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO), will resign from her post on November 30 after a five-year stint and return to India. The 63-year-old, who is two years short of the WHO’s mandatory retirement age, told The Indian Express that she felt an urge to do “more hands-on practical work” and that she always wanted to live and work in India.

“The main reason is that I feel an urge, after five years at the global level, to come back to more hands-on practical work in research and policy. I would like to turn all the ideas and concepts we have been promoting in the WHO into reality. I have met so many incredible people and been exposed to many good ideas and feel that I could be contributing to so many things in India. These are exciting times with so much interest and investment in health and I would like to be part of that transformation. There is a window of opportunity in India and in countries like India, which are taking health seriously, to really build strong and resilient primary health systems and empower communities. I have always wanted to live and work in India, and whenever I had an opportunity abroad, it has always been for a limited amount of time,” Swaminathan said.

A paediatrician, who is globally recognised for her research on tuberculosis and HIV, Swaminathan has also served as director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research for two years before taking up the post of deputy director general (programmes) at the WHO in 2017. After the agency set up a science division, she became the WHO’s first chief scientist starting March 2019.

With the global outbreak of the coronavirus, the WHO’s science division played an important role, with one of its significant contributions being bringing out guidelines for the clinical management of Covid-19 patients.

“This was real innovation, and every time a clinical trial reported results, we would update the guidelines so that people would know which drugs were effective,” Swaminathan said.

According to her, the need to be prepared for an emergency was one of the main lessons learnt from the pandemic.

On her return to India, she said she plans to build on the vision of her father, Dr M S Swaminathan — the eminent scientist known as the father of India’s Green Revolution. “He had a holistic vision of interlinking agriculture, nutrition and health, and I want to build on his vision,” she said.

She will be on the board of trustees of the M S Swaminathan Foundation, which has a mandate to work on rural livelihoods, sustainable agriculture and the use of science to have an impact on society.

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