An image showing an Indian woman practicing pranayama

A furious outbreak of Covid-19 in India hasn’t hindered the government’s funding of questionable science and has drawn the ire of some scientists in the country.

One example is the funding of an ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) trial by the Indian Ministry of Science to investigate whether reciting an ancient Hindu prayer, the Gayatri mantra, along with a series of breathing exercises in yoga, can treat Covid -19 patients could improve.

The chanting of prayer will be evaluated along with ‘pranayama’ breathing exercises from yoga as a pilot study to assess markers of inflammation in hospitalized Covid-19 patients at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Rishikesh as part of the ICMR.

Patients receive instruction on singing and breathing exercises through video conferencing for up to 14 days in the morning and evening in the hospital room or at home for up to 14 days after discharge. Criticism is mostly focused on the design of the experiment, the small sample size, and the pre-built bias.

Breathing exercises should benefit Covid-19 patients, says Partha Majumdar, founding director of the National Institute for Biomedical Genomics in Calcutta. But when mixed with the chanting of prayer, “it will be impossible to separate the effects of the two on Covid-19 patients,” he says. Even when the prayer has no effect, “which is the most plausible expectation, the beneficial effects of pranayama will show up as the confusing effects of both,” he says.

Scientists have also criticized the small sample size – just 20 volunteers. It’s “too small a number to reach a conclusion, especially because we are still unclear how different Covid-19 symptoms are during illness and recovery,” says Subhash Lakhotia, cytogeneticist at Banaras Hindu University. ‘The details available in the Clinical Trials Registry also do not make it clear whether the analysis would follow a blind protocol. I am surprised that such an irrationally planned research project, even if it claims to be a pilot study, is eligible for funding. ‘

‘One bigger concern [with] Such targeted research is the trend that already exists, ”says Lakhotia. Previous studies conducted to validate the claimed benefits of chanting the Gayatri mantra have suffered from a similar lack of rational planning. Such wrongly planned studies are indeed typical of the pseudosciences, ”he says.

On May 7, India’s Ayush Ministry, which deals with alternative drug systems such as Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy, announced a nationwide campaign to promote polyherbal medicines for Covid-19 patients undergoing treatment at home . It states that “the effectiveness of these drugs has been demonstrated by robust, multi-center clinical studies,” but is not linked to peer-reviewed evidence to support this claim.

In February 2021, Indian Science and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, himself a doctor and surgeon, was present at the launch of a Coronil kit containing three herbal medicines that is said to boost immunity. It was formulated by Baba Ramdev’s company Patanjali. Ramdev initially claimed that Coronil had been certified by the Indian Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO quickly clarified on Twitterthat it has not reviewed or certified any traditional medicine for the treatment [of] # Covid19 ‘.

The Indian Medical Association described claims that Coronil could be used for prevention, treatment, and follow-up care after Covid as “false and invented projection” of an “unscientific medicine”.

“Recently, we have seen a trend in which government agencies offer funding to ‘scientifically validate’ personal beliefs,” says Soumitro Banerjee, professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Calcutta and secretary-general of the Breakthrough Science Society (BSS ), which promotes scientific rationalism. The BSS condemns funding for “poorly designed research projects when mainstream science suffers from lack of funding,” he adds.


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