For over 50 days now, R. Sukumar, the editor of the Delhi newspaper Hindustan Times, has written a daily wrap titled ‘COVID-19: What you need to know today‘. But three words have never appeared in it: Jubilant Generics, Nanjangud.
Jubilant Generics, is a subsidiary of Jubilant Life Sciences, a pharmaceutical company founded by Shyam S. Bhartia (in picture, left), the husband of Shobhana Bhartia, chairperson of HT Media, the listed company which owns Hindustan Times.
Nanjangud is a temple town in Mysore district, 23 km from Mysore on the road to Ooty.
Jubilant Generics makes ingredients for drugs used in treating respiratory tract infections (including #Coronavirus) at its Nanjangud plant. It has just announced a tie-up with a US firm to make Remdesivir, a potential drug for COVID-19.
On April 1, a week after prime minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown, Mysore district was included as one of India’s 25 COVID hotspots. Eventually, 74 out of the 90 cases in the district could be traced to a “single source”—Jubilant Generics.
74 out of 90 = 82.2% of cases.
While TV prophets could conclude that the Tabhligi Jamaat congregation was the cause for “60% of new cases” within hours, the source of the infection at the Jubilant plant has still not been found, a full 48 days after the first employee tested positive on March 26.
While Delhi government filed a case against the #TabhligiJamaat on March 30, and Delhi police filed an FIR on March 31—less than a week after the congregation was busted—the Karnataka government and police are still do so against Jubilant, a fully 48 days on.
And while the Muslim angle to the #TablighiJamaat conclave in Nizamuddin (West) enabled it to be converted into a “national issue” by embedded sections of Delhi-based media, #JubilantGenerics in faraway Nanjangud—2,309 km from Noida—has largely remained a local news story, confined to the city, state and regional pages.
Over the last 48 days, all but four of Mysore’s 90 COVID cases have been closed, and one of these days the last patient will be sent home. But despite the hamhanded attempts to bury the case, #JubilantGenerics has not entirely disappeared from public memory.
It has become the butt of newspaper cartoons (P. Mahamud in Andolana, above). Juicy rumours and conspiracy theories abound. And ‘Nanjangud Mystery” has lodged itself firmly in the journalistic lexicon: here, here, here, here, and here.
But what really sticks out is the overweening attempt at damage-control:
# Three serving ministers in the BJP government in Karnataka have offered three different versions of the source of the infection at #JubilantGenerics.
# There are hints of a cover-up with an IAS officer appointed to trace the origin throwing up his hands, citing “lack of cooperation”. He now says, what is the point?
# The local Nanjangud BJP MLA has spoken of “pressure from Delhi” to hush up the case, with prominent BJP names playing a starring role.
# And l’affaire Jubilant Generics has seen a turf war within the ruling BJP in Karnataka.
The minister in charge of Mysore district, V. Somanna, was shunted out days after he said he would “summon” the MD of #JubilantGenerics (Shyam Bhartia as it turns out) to answer for the mess.
The local BJP MLA from Nanjangud has clashed with the BJP MP from Mysore, Pratap Simha, a Kannada newspaper columnist turned politician, who has been twice removed from the Press Council of India for insufficient attendance, for meddling in an issue located outside his Lok Sabha constituency.
And, although probably unconnected to the Nanjangud incident, Jubilant Pharma intimated Singapore stock exchange on April 28 that a director had resigned on April 15, and been replaced.
Little wonder “Jubilant Generics, Nanjangud” is not one of the things the editor of Hindustan Times has thought readers ought to know for 52 days running.
To be sure, neither Hindustan Times, Mint nor HT Media have anything to do with Jubilant Generics. Although they are husband and wife, Shyam and Shobhana Bhartia are individuals in their own right, who run separate companies.
“The promoters of HT Media Ltd which publishes Hindustan Times and Mint, and Jubilant Life Sciences are closely related. There are, however, no promoter cross-holdings,” reads a disclaimer on the story today announcing a tie-up to manufacture a potential COVID-19 drug, with the Nanjangud plant playing a hand.
That said, what the #JubilantGenerics coverage shows is the huge information advantage it enjoyed over the #TablighiJamaat despite being responsible for “82% of the cases” in Mysore district.
# A powerful corporate with bulging money, media, PR and political muscle could control the negative news flow unlike a congregation (and a community) instantly hanged in the court of public opinion by a media eager to communalise a pandemic.
# And the use of the loaded euphemism “single-source” by embedded sections of the media as a code to scapegoat a community is in stark contrast to its inability to depict #JubilantGenerics as a “single source”.
Let the record show that Shobhana Bhartia is a former member of the Rajya Sabha, nominated by the Congress party. And let the record also show that Jubilant Bhartia group donated Rs 10 crore to the PMCARES fund on April 24.
The contours of l’affaire Jubilant Generics are simple.
As a per a press statement, emailed from a Gmail account by a public relations firm without a letterhead, a #JubilantGenerics employee, who had stopped coming to work from 11 am on March 20, had tested positive for COVID-19 five days later, on March 26.
“P-52” was 35 years old, and worked in the quality assurance department.
However, S. Suresh Kumar, the Karnataka labour minister, has said on record that the employee had shown symptoms on March 13, indicating a gap in the timeline of nearly a week between Jubilant’s claim and the government’s.
Subsequently, as more cases involving Jubilant’s employees were reported, the plant operations were suspended and all the 1,300 employees were put under self-quarantine. Jubilant has 900 employees on the rolls; 400 on contract.
Nanjangud town (in picture, above) was put under “total lockdown“.
On March 27, the day after P–52 tested positive, health department officials visited the plant. Jubilant says they were allowed access to the warehouse to take a sampling of materials and provided all information on their receipt, transit time and storage.
In addition, is says, it shared the CCTV footage, company records on leave, travel and visitors, and movement of materials.
And yet, 48 days later, the source of the infection is a mystery?
The confusion and crosstalk in the Karnataka government, police and bureaucracy over the Jubilant incident—and the eagerness to give the company a 48-day-long rope—is testament to the undercurrents in crafting the narrative.
# On March 31, the district in-charge minister V. Somanna said on Facebook (above) that the “Jubilant MD”, who had gone to Delhi after the outbreak of #Coronavirus, had not returned, and that he would be summoned in a couple of days.
This could have just been bluster meant for the cameras because planes and trains were not plying due to the lockdown, but Somanna was turfed out of Mysore on April 9, in a mysterious reallocation of charge at the height of the pandemic.
# On April 4, former chief minister Siddaramaiah gave flight to a rumour (India Today, above) that the infection could have spread across Jubilant through raw materials imported by the company from China, from where #Coronavirus originated.
The local Nanjangud MLA B. Harshvardhan of the BJP too chimed in, asking why the company had not postponed the import when the pandemic had set in.
However, samples of the powder and gel sent to the National Institute of Virology in Pune are reported to have turned negative. And P-52 told Star of Mysore that he was an employee in the documentation department with no contact with the raw materials.
# On April 16, medical education minister K. Sudhakar told India Today that the home department, i.e. the police, had come to the conclusion that a Jubilant employee who had visited China and who had come in contact with a Chinese person carrying the virus, had brought it back and spread it to his colleagues.
Mysore police immediately clarified that “Patient 52”, who had tested positive on March 26, had no history of travel.
“Patient 52”, it turned out, did not even have a passport.
Jubilant said in a statement: “Patient-52 did not travel to China or (made) any overseas trip in the last six months. Further, none of the employees tested positive so far travelled overseas in the last six months.”
# Law minister Suresh Kumar (above), who took over the task of briefing the media on COVID from medical education minister Sudhakar, however, said that from February 4 to 18, a number of foreign nationals had visited Jubilant plant, from the United States, Germany, Japan, and China.
In other words, the infection had started at Jubilant because of employees’ contact with visitors. Were those visitors foreigners alone, or perhaps Indian nationals belonging to the company who were carrying the virus?
If the source was an Indian visiting Jubilant, who is he, has he been traced, where?
#On April 24, the state chief secretary T.M. Vijayabhaskar put it on record in a government order that Jubilant was the “primary cause of the spread of the pandemic in Mysore district“.
He ordered the nodal officer, Harsh Gupta, IAS, to probe not just the source of the infection and the cause of its spread in Jubilant, but also to ascertain what role the company had played.
Deccan Herald reported the officer returned midway, “citing lack of cooperation from a few departments”. Harsh Gupta now tells The Hindu identifying “patient zero” at this stage would be of no help in containing the disease.
# On May 7, S.T. Somashekhar, the new minister in charge of Mysore district (above), said there were three possible sources for the infection.
Jubilant employees from elsewhere who had visited the Nanjangud plant for audit purposes; Jubilant employees from Nanjangud who had travelled outside.
And then, he bowled a most predictable BJP googly.
“The source of the virus is now believed to be an employee who had met #TablighiJamaat returnees at Thanisandra in Bengaluru.”
So, what you (really) need to know today is that the COVID-19 needle which was instantly found in the #TablighiJamaat haystack in Delhi has not been traceable in the super-sanitised confines of a pharmaceutical company in Nanjangud, 48 days later.
What you (really) need to know today is that the media will pour out, unfiltered, all the information about they are drip-fed by “sources” who want them to put it out in the public realm, but can’t tell you anything without their assistance.
And what you (really) need to know today is that it is a short journey from Noida to Nanjangud if you happen to be the company which will manufacture the potential drug for Coronavirus.
Screenshots: courtesy Hindustan Times, Andolana, India Today, Deccan Herald, Mint
Videos: courtesy Karnataka information