Meet the virologist at the forefront of India’s battle against Covid-19

Dr. Priya Abraham talks virology, leadership and her experience of heading the National Institute of Virology during the pandemic

Dr. Priya Abraham, Director of the National Institute of Virology, was about to catch a flight on January 29 when she received a phone call: “Ma’am, I think we have a positive.” That night, she headed straight to her institute to assess if a new virus had entered India’s shores. After a night full of discussions, with her team of scientists, she braced herself to inform the authorities that Covid-19 had found its way into the country.

In a conversation with Anubha Bhonsle, Dr. Abraham shares the experience of leading the charge at NIV, whose reins she took over just two months before the pandemic hit India. She talks about her love for the discipline of virology, advises aspiring scientists to be patient and committed, and tells us why her idea of good leadership is an oxymoron.

AB: It had just been two months since you became Director of the National Institute of Virology when Covid-19 hit India. You were in a crucial leadership role and a crisis of this magnitude hit. What was it like?

Dr. Abraham: Of course, nobody knew that this was coming, but I think those two months were extremely crucial. They gave me time to understand the institute, the setting, the scientists – their core skills and capabilities. Therefore, when the pandemic hit we decided to dive into the deep end right away. I was able to tap on the right people’s skills and capacities to take this forward.


AB: What happened “the day the action began”?
Dr. Abraham: On the night of January 29, I was on my way for a meeting in Delhi. I was at the airport terminal when one of our scientists called me and said, “Ma’am. I think we have a positive”. And I said, “Okay, has the other lab taken it up?” (I had lined up two labs for Covid-19 research. One was the primary lab, and the other was to verify the findings of the first in a blinded manner).

They told me they were testing. I returned at night and headed straight to the institute. I went through all the data – by then the second lab had also come up with their results. And yes, indeed, we had a positive.

It was quite a dramatic night with very little margin of error, and I’m very thankful to the team. We worked late into the night discussing and interrogating the data. The gravity of that information was huge – to tell the government, the world, the people of the country that the virus had entered our shores. The next morning, I went and checked the results. A senior official from the ICMR was visiting the institute – we told him and he reported it to the government, and the rest is history.


AB: When were you able to isolate the virus, and from a lay person’s perspective, what is the significance of isolating it?

Dr. Abraham: We were able to isolate the virus on March 9. Before that, I had scientists telling me, “Dr. Abraham, you need to isolate the virus – that would be the icing on the cake.” We were at it, of course, but in science, one has to wait, and try over and over again till it finally works. You’ve got to hang in there.

When we isolate a virus, it means we can actually grow the virus, and it has immense significance…from being able to make indigenous testing kits, to testing antiviral drug candidates, and collaborating with pharmaceutical companies on a vaccine.

And we did – we tried, and tried, and finally on March 9, we were able to isolate the virus. And it was quite an exhilarating feeling.


AB: There are many headlines that pitch you as the “woman scientist leading India’s fight against Covid-19”. How do you feel about the phrasing?

Dr. Abraham: I’m frankly, a bit embarrassed, I’m not really one of those who is very happy even in front of a camera, leave alone engaging with the media to this extent. When I do engage with the media, I see it as an opportunity to share the work happening at the institute, what my colleagues are doing – for the past eight and a half months, they have been working quietly, steadily.


AB: What about the headline foregrounding your gender…

Dr. Abraham: I don’t particularly feel averse, but if somebody were to put so much emphasis on the woman, I don’t think that’s right. I think men and women are equally capable though I do think it’s harder for women. I think very often when women are driven, focused, very goal-oriented in terms of their careers, they are conveniently labeled as aggressive. I would not like anybody to be aggressive, in fact. I think no leader – man or woman, should be someone who does not have empathy, who does not feel for the people who work with him or her.


AB: What is your leadership style, and who are some of your role models?

Dr. Abraham: A leader should be able to take a firm stance – they should be able to call a spade a spade. But this has to be done with a sort of – this may sound like an oxymoron — a certain gentleness. A gentle firmness, if you know what I mean.

Leaders have to lead from the front, and work hard, in fact harder than their team.  And they should be able to understand the importance of human resources – of the people who work for them. You could have all the equipment but if you don’t have the right people and if you don’t encourage them, you really can’t run a show.

I think that’s my idea of leadership.


AB: And what about your role models?

Dr. Abraham: Margaret Stanley from Oxford – her work is focused on cervical cancer. She is such an erudite speaker. I’ve heard her on several occasions and I admire her clarity, her diction, her ability to inspire.

KK Shailaja, the Health Minister of Kerala – an extremely simple person…she was the woman who helped the state contain the Nipah virus outbreak (of 2018), and has managed this pandemic so well. And there’s Dr. Sowmya Swaminathan, the Chief Scientist at the WHO (World Health Organization). A very intelligent, hardworking, and balanced person. And again, someone who is a great encourager.


AB: You mentioned Dr. Sowmya Swaminathan – a lot of women are in global public health leadership. I’m wondering what got us here. This is more than just a seat at the table. I ask because often women get a seat at the table, but may not have all the tools or the opportunity to bring effective change.

Dr. Abraham: I don’t believe women should just have a seat at the table – women will have to equip themselves, make themselves heard. We need to take away “gender” from the workplace, I think. One has to look for merit, capability, credentials, contributions – not at their gender.

And yes, you are right. I am so thrilled that at least seven countries (and all led by women) have actually done significantly better during this pandemic – New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark.

I think they have all faced the truth – they have all been practical, introducing restrictive measures quickly enough. They have given public health priority over economic concerns, and collaborated with communities. They have engaged with their respective populations and they’ve convinced them that this is the thing we need to do. And I think the fact that they were not distracted by the economic downturns, and were a little more aggressive with handling the pandemic has been good for their populations at the end of the day.

At the same time they thought about social equality, about basic human needs, and they have dealt with it, I think, with a tinge of generosity.


AB: What are your support systems at a personal level?

Dr. Abraham: I have been privileged to have a very supportive family. We were two daughters but our parents wanted us to do everything boys did, and to be independent. My husband has been extremely supportive of my work and I have been pretty focused on my profession. I hope I struck a good balance of work and family, but compared to the average woman, I was able to focus more on my work. You can’t make inroads into any field unless you give it your best, and I have given a lot of time to my work. But I do enjoy relaxing with my family and friends. I’m not a nerdy type, certainly not.



AB: Taking off from your last comment there, we should also perhaps not feel apologetic about being committed to our work, right?

Dr. Abraham: Absolutely. I think men must also strike the balance – barring a few exceptions, most men tend to shut themselves off at the workplace and forget everything else. Whereas we women are the queens of multitasking. We always try to carry so many things along with us. I think men also need to multitask – both men and women need to be active participants in their parenting, in their involvement at home, as well as at work. And if men are unable to do it, that’s an area they need to work on.


AB: Let’s rewind a little – why did you become a scientist? What drew you to this field as a child?

Dr. Abraham: I was interested in the life sciences early on – I took up science and math in high school and then went on to graduate from the Christian Medical College in Vellore. After I finished training, I was very interested in working in the laboratory, and went on to specialize in virology. You may ask why virology? Virology has been at the centre of medicine, to pediatrics, even agriculture and animal husbandry, and that’s what excites me about the discipline.

And the disciple has seen huge challenges and great successes – right from when Edward Jenner discovered that an innocuous virus could actually protect the world from the deadly smallpox. And it continues to be a fascinating discipline.


AB: What would you say to aspiring scientists out there, young boys and girls, especially young girls, encouraging them to take up STEM?

Dr. Abraham: I would say virology is one of those exciting disciplines – and it is going to be a very dynamic field in the future too. To the young girls and boys thinking of this as a career option, I would say, you would be making a very good choice. But you must remember that success will not come overnight. You will have to hang in there. Keep working diligently and success will come when it has to come – don’t try to hit the fast forward button. The important thing is to be committed and dedicated.

Sometimes young girls and boys can get disenchanted with medicine and science when they compare themselves to the young techie – young techies sort of hit the jackpot fairly early – often in their twenties. But science and medicine are not disciplines like that. If you are genuinely attracted to the subject, hang in there and it will turn truly, truly exciting for you.

(This interview has been edited for brevity.)