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India: why it’s so hard to get a coronavirus vaccine

People sitting down waiting for covid vaccine.
Waiting for a vaccine in Mumbai in late April. Divyakant Solanki/EPA

This is a transcript of episode 15 of The Conversation Weekly podcast Why India’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is faltering. In this episode, as India’s COVID-19 crisis continues, we look at what’s holding back the country’s vaccination programme and how a shift in strategy on distribution and pricing is causing concern. And we speak to a researcher who went hunting for fungi in the world’s largest seed bank.

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Gemma Ware: Hi everyone, before we get into this week’s episode, we’ve got a little request for you.

Dan Merino: The Conversation is a non-profit organisation. By bringing together academics and journalists, we generate articles and podcasts that are grounded in expertise, but also engage with and set the news agenda.

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Dan: We appreciate you spreading the word, and bringing more and more people into The Conversation. Thank you! Now on to the episode.

Gemma: This week, as India’s COVID crisis deepens, we look at what’s holding back its vaccination rollout.

R. Ramakumar: This is vaccine is not like a soap or a toothpaste. It is a public good.

Dan: And an interview with a researcher who went hunting for fungi in the worlds largest seed bank.

Rowena Hill: Our human society is hugely reliant on these microbial fungi.

Gemma: I’m Gemma Ware in London

Dan: And I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco. You’re listening to The Conversation Weekly, the world explained by experts.

Gemma: India is submerged in the middle of a brutal and deadly second wave of COVID-19.

Dan: On May 12, the country reported 348,421 new cases of COVID-19 and 4,205 new deaths, taking the total to over a quarter million dead. But many observers think these official figures could be substantial underestimates.

Dan: While some Indian states have imposed their own restrictions, calls are growing for India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to impose a nationwide lockdown.

Gemma: Much has been written, including on The Conversation, about why India’s second wave has been so big and so deadly. Experts point to complacency that India had beaten COVID … to the spread of more transmissible new variants … and to large public gatherings that acted as superspreader events.

Read more: 'Each burning pyre is an unspeakable, screeching horror' – one researcher on the frontline of India's COVID crisis

Dan: In this week’s episode we’re taking a look at the bottlenecks in India’s vaccine programme, and why it’s currently really difficult to get a vaccine there.

Gemma: We’ve talked to three experts in India to find out more.

Gemma: India began its COVID-19 vaccination rollout on January 16, starting out with healthcare workers first. Then it moved on to other frontline workers, like the police and army, and then to people over the age of 60. In April, anyone over 45 became eligible.

Rajib Dasgupta: There has certainly been a very steady increase in the numbers being vaccinated each day, which moved roughly at 2.5 million per day in the second half of March to 3.5 million per day by the middle of April and, in between, rising to nearly 4.5 million per day.

Gemma: This is Rajib Dasgupta.

Rajib: I’m a medical doctor and a public health specialist. I am professor and chairperson at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Gemma: Rajib told me that despite the ramp up in the number of people getting vaccinated in March and April, the coverage across the population remains relatively low.

Rajib: So data available till the May 3, indicates that vaccine coverage has been less than 10%, which is one dose, mind you, in nearly 58% of the districts and between 10% to 20% in another 30% of districts. And the relatively low coverage of the less than 10% is largely in the northern and central Indian states with very sizeable populations. So translated to the national level, it means that roughly 2% of the population have received two doses.

Gemma: At the start of the year there weren’t that many cases and there was some hesitancy in the take-up of vaccines amongst the first eligible groups.

Rajib: The acceptance, even among these groups who were actually at highest risk, even there it was certainly sluggish, at least til the middle of April.

Dan: Cases continued to rise though. And as as the hospital and oxygen crisis worsened and death rates soared, on May 1 the government opened up vaccination appointments to all Indians over the age of 18.

Rajib: In one sense, this is the big leap in vaccination.

Dan: But this big leap has been held back by a shortage in vaccines. Much like other countries with short supplies of vaccines, Rajib says that this has led many Indian states to focus on giving people their second dose.

Rajib: Not enough vaccine is available now to those groups, which are due for second doses, even. In many cities or districts, vaccination programs have been either put on hold or trickled down from the large volume that it was doing even a couple of weeks back and therefore actually very little vaccination, relatively speaking, is going to happen in the 18-to-44 age group.

Gemma: He’s optimistic that the situation should stabilise by July.

Rajib: Given that multiple efforts are on to increase the supply, which includes direct imports, ramping up production, plus authorisation to more vaccines. But the next few weeks, or even a couple of months is likely to see difficulties in supply and therefore the actual uptake of immunisation.

Dan: It wasn’t meant to be this way. India’s proud of its label as the “pharmacy of the world”. Over the past few decades, the country has become a world leader in vaccinations – both in giving them to children, and manufacturing doses.

Rajib: The watershed moment of India’s vaccination is around 2002.

Gemma: When India failed to eradicate polio in the country by the year 2000, Rajib says the government realised it would only succeed if it expanded the coverage of its free immunisation programmes for children.

Rajib: The immunisation program really got a renewed phase of strengthening that that finally culminated in polio being eliminated in 2013-14 … but also the vaccination coverage steadily improving to the extent that most of the laggard states now actually have coverage above 80% and nearing the full immunisation coverage target of 90% in many cases.

So on one hand, it’s a remarkable story. And therefore there has been a lot of optimism around the COVID vaccine coverage in India, which is in addition to the fact that there are very large, vaccine producers in the country. But for a mix of reasons, the coverage hasn’t really kept up to that optimism.

Dan: While the paediatric vaccination programme has improved dramatically, it’s a different story for adults.

Rajib: India does not have any adult vaccination programme, particularly influenza vaccines, which is quite well established in many countries of the world, particularly Europe, UK, USA.

Dan: And Rajib says that the figure that is often quoted about India’s vaccine manufacturing capacity – that it produces 60% of the world’s vaccines – is actually misleading.

Rajib: India is a very big manufacturer, but what got a bit misconstrued is this magical 60% figure, which is actually India’s contribution to the UNICEF procurement of childhood vaccines. This is not 60% of all vaccines. Indeed, in the adult vaccination category, particularly influenza of vaccines that contribution globally from the Indian manufacturers is about 20%.

Dan: This distinction between prowess at vaccinating children and inexperience in vaccinating adults matters when it comes to COVID-19.

Gagandeep: I’m Gagandeep Kang. I’m a professor at the Christian Medical College in Vellore in southern India and I’m a public health microbiologist with an interest in mucosal infections and in vaccines.

Dan: When I spoke to Gagandeep in early May, she told me she was concerned about India’s ability to deliver vaccine to those who are underprivileged, or who live in hard-to-access places.

Gagandeep: We’ve managed to get to nearly 90% of routine immunisation, which has coverage of our children with childhood vaccines, but we’ve never been able to push beyond the 90%. And when this is the first adult immunisation programme that we are rolling out, my worry is we are not going to get to 90% with adults because we just don’t have a system for this. We are building a new system and trying to do it very quickly. So that’s challenging. And if the goal is going to be herd protection and you’re not currently immunising children effectively you need every adult to be immunised, and that I don’t think is likely to happen.

Dan: The lack of expertise in adult vaccination is by just a small part of the reason for the bottlenecks in India’s vaccination programme. Before we jump into that, I asked Gagandeep to set out which vaccines are currently licensed for use in India. There are two main ones.

Gagandeep: Covishield is essentially the AstraZeneca vaccine when it is made in India. And that is the vaccine that has so far been used for 90% of the immunisation that has been carried out.

Dan: Covishield is being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, which is based in Pune in western India. The second is Covaxin, made by a company called Bharat Biotech.

Gagandeep: And this has been used in about 10% of the people who have been immunised so far.

Dan: A third option is the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, which was recently licensed for use in India.

Gagandeep: And a few doses of that are arriving from Russia – 150,000 I believe.

Dan: There are a two other homegrown Indian vaccine candidates on the horizon, including a DNA vaccine called ZyCov-D and another is being developed by the firm Biological E in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine in the US. Discussions are also underway to begin manufacturing the Novavax vaccine and the Johnson and Johnson vaccine in India.

Gagandeep: It’s possible, that if things go according to plan, that both of these vaccines will also be manufactured in India by the end of the year and available to our population as well as potentially populations outside the country.

Dan: One of the biggest concerns about vaccinations globally right now has been the emergence of new variants. And India’s no different. There are two main variants in the country: B117, the variant now common in the UK, Europe and the US. And a second variant.

Gagandeep: The so-called Indian variant, B1617, which is also spreading all over the country. It started in western India and is now found everywhere. We don’t yet have data on severity, but I think it’s very likely that it will be a variant that has increased transmissability.

Dan: The main question is: do the vaccines work against these variants? Gagandeep said new data was published in early May from the University of Oxford.

Gagandeep: That confirmed data that had previously been reported from India, that both of the vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, are able to neutralise both of these variants. Now, obviously the more labs and the most sera you evaluate the clearer, the picture will become, but at the moment it’s looking pretty good.

Dan: This is hopeful news. Current vaccines, if they can be injected into people’s arms, will protect most people from serious COVID-19.

Gemma: And that’s why the current difficulties in getting a vaccine are so worrying.

Ramakumar: Some people joke that it’s easy to climb Mount Everest than getting a vaccine in India.

My name is R. Ramkumar.

Gemma: R. Ramkumar is a professor of economics at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.

Ramakumar: There is a mobile app that people have to use to register and then get an appointment. However, to begin with people are not allowed to register, sometimes the mobile app hangs or times out. When they manage to register and they try for an appointment what happens is that there are no appointments, til June or July of this year. So that’s the kind of difficulty people are facing even in majors, cities like Mumbai. So if you go to the rural areas of India, you will see that the situation would have become even more serious.

Gemma: The sheer size of India’s population makes the rollout a massive undertaking.

Ramakumar: The government made serious miscalculations as to how much vaccines would be required to inoculate about 1,380 million people in India. As a result of which, it made a huge number of policy mistakes as it went by over the last one year, because of which we are currently faced with a serious problem of supplies.

Read more: Charging Indians for COVID vaccines is bad, letting vaccine producers charge what they like is unconscionable

There is increasing acceptance now to the point that the central government could have given approvals to more numbers of vaccines in January or February of this year, when they stuck to just two Indian vaccines. It had a policy of Atma Nirbhar Bharat or what is called a self-reliance, whereby, they wanted to display India as some kind of a Vishnu guru, the guru of the world in terms of providing vaccines to everybody. So they wanted to stick to the two vaccines produced in India, Covishield and Covaxin, and not give permission to either the Pfizer vaccine or the Sputnik vaccine or any other vaccine. It is only when the shortage of vaccines hit them harder April did they agree to these approvals, though belated.

Gemma: Changes to the way the COVID vaccines are priced in recent weeks has added more confusion to these supply issues. Traditionally vaccines have been available for free in India under the paediatric programme, although some private providers sell them too. Until April 30, R Ramakumar told me that COVID vaccines were available for free for everyone over the age of 45.

Ramakumar: After May 1, there is no clarity as to whether free vaccines would continue to be available for everyone above the 45 years age group also. But certainly those between 18 and 45 years of age, it is not free. They have to pay. If it is Covishield, you have to pay 300 rupees per dose or 600 rupees for two doses.

Gemma: 300 rupees is about US$4.

Ramakumar: Covaxin, you have to actually pay about 400 rupees per dose. Now, this is if you go to a state government vaccination centre. If you are actually going to a private hospital, you will have to pay more than double these rates.

Gemma: The price also varies depending where in India you live.

Ramakumar: So in some states it is free. Some states it may be subsidised, but in some states you people have to pay the full rates.

Gemma: In early May, as well as introducing a change to the pricing system, the government also changed the way that vaccines were delivered around India, opening it up to private providers too.

Ramakumar: Before that the central government was the sole purchaser of all vaccines at a regulated price. So what they did was they liberalised vaccine sales and also deregulated vaccine prices alongside. What did this mean? The vaccine production in India, or for each company, would be divided in two parts.

Gemma: The first 50% are now reserved for the central government, who purchase them at a lower price to give to everybody over the age of 45. The second 50% are now shared by different state governments and private companies, who have to purchase them directly from the vaccine companies.

Ramakumar: Now this meant that at least half of vaccine production in India would be sold through market channels, negotiations that will happen between state governments and private hospitals on the one hand and monopolistic vaccine producers on the other hand.

Gemma: Before May the price of vaccines distributed by the central government had been regulated, but this regulated price is no longer applicable to the 50% of vaccines now being distributed by states and private providers.

Ramakumar: In other words, they were given full freedom to fix the price of vaccines as they pleased.

Gemma: He says this happened largely because vaccine companies were unhappy the profits they were making from the regulated price.

Ramakumar: Their own spokespersons and CEOs have come on television and said that they were unhappy with that normal profit.

Gemma: Here’s Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, speaking to NDTV in early April

Ramakumar: But the government negotiated with them, that you should not make it rupees thousand per dose and so on. So they agreed to lower it a little bit. So they fixed different prices for different purchases.

And the only the reason why this policy shift appears to have been undertaken is to succumb to the pressure of these monopolistic vaccine companies who have wished for super profits to be made even as the economy is in crisis, unemployment is rising, government revenues are falling and so on and so forth.

Gemma: But R. Ramakumar believes the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also made a political calculation here too.

Ramakumar: A lot of blame for the vaccine shortage was being placed at the door of the central government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government. This was politically expensive.

Gemma: And that’s when it introduced the new policy, pushing the responsibilities onto the states to directly purchase vaccines.

Ramakumar: Given that vaccine shortage would continue, there would be anger among people. The central government can always say that: “It is because the state governments did not place orders in time, or did not order for adequate vaccines that you are facing a vaccine shortage. We are not culpable in this regard.” So this kind of shifting the blame onto state governments and the political parties ruling them was the implicit reason why the politics of this policy has played out in this particular way. Basically the central government has withdrawn from the functions of an enlightened welfare state.

Gemma: R. Ramakumar says there are two ways he thinks the changes in the vaccination rollout could play out.

Ramakumar: One is the vaccine shortage is going to continue and in an overall sense, the coverage of vaccination in India is very low and it will continue to be low. Number two, because of the high prices that are being charged for vaccines, the poor, the working people, the lower-middle-class are going to be extremely excluded from the vaccine access. Some calculations using the present vaccine prices will show that if you look at an average agricultural household in India, they have to pay about half of their monthly income to vaccinate their entire family with two doses.

Gemma: He worries that this could exacerbate the existing vaccine hesitancy in India.

Ramakumar: You see vaccine hesitancy already exists because of issues related to overconfidence, et cetera. But the question of affordability comes in it complicates and makes the problem of vaccine hesitancy even more acute among the population. As a result, millions of people are likely not to get vaccinated because they don’t have enough income to purchase the vaccines.

Gemma: He says that this will just lead to a situation where richer Indians can go to private hospitals and get vaccinated, but the poor are excluded.

Ramakumar: What is missed in this is vaccine is not like a soap or a toothpaste. It is a public good. It is not just providing private benefits to people. It also provides social benefits. If some people remain without vaccination and a small section, gets vaccinated such as the rich, the problem is going to get worsened because the large unvaccinated population would mean that more and more possibilities exist for the virus to get mutated further.

Gemma: The government’s vaccination rollout has caught the attention of the Supreme Court of India.

Ramakumar: It has asked the government to say why it failed to procure adequate number of vaccines for the population in time. Second, it has asked the central government why it is not fixing the price at a regulated level rather than giving vaccine companies full freedom to set vaccine prices at the levels that they wish to fix them at. The third question is why is it not that the central government is becoming the sole purchaser of these vaccines, purchasing it in bulk from the vaccine companies. It is well known that the vaccine market is prone to market failures. Despite this knowledge, that vaccine markets are highly imperfect, why is it that the central government has gone on to rely on markets as the best mechanism to distribute vaccines?

Gemma: It’s not just the vaccine rollout that the government has been criticised for. They’ve been taken to task for a complacency, and a lack of preparedness for the second wave. I asked R. Ramkumar what he thought this all meant, politically, for Modi and his ruling BJP party.

Ramakumar: It has already damaged the reputation of the prime minister, who always likes to carefully cultivate a particular kind of a positive image for himself and his government, globally, and this is also so domestically.

In the midst of the COVID crisis you had the elections to a few states and except in one state, the BJP was not elected to power. In fact, opposition parties were elected to power in Kerala in Tamil Nadu, in West Bengal. So there is very clear unhappiness among the public on the way the government has managed to deal with the COVID crisis. All of this is building up slowly and we have not yet reached the peak of the second wave.

Read more: India: election loss in West Bengal may be start of a backlash against Modi's handling of COVID crisis

Dan: For now, India’s top priority is to make sure that everybody who is sick can get the oxygen and medicines they need. Vaccines won’t help stop this second deadly wave. But I asked Gagandeep Kang what roll the vaccine would play in longer term.

Gagandeep: It’s always possible to arrest the pandemic without vaccination. We’ve seen that in New Zealand, in Taiwan, but those are short-term solutions. The longer-term solution has to be vaccinating populations. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves in absolute numbers to other countries. We should be looking at the percentage of the population that is being immunised, and there we are not doing particularly well if we want to achieve control in the near term. We really need to do better.

Gemma: You can read stories by R. Ramakumar and Rajib Dasgupta on The Conversation, where academics across the world are writing about the situation in India. Find the links in our show notes.

Gemma: So Dan, what’s the second story we’re talking about this week?

Dan: OK, so I want to introduce it with a little anecdote. I was visiting my mom – mother’s day – and as moms always do, she asked me take care of a few small chores. She asked me to clean up what she thought were a few wasps nests growing in the yard.

Gemma: I would not have said yes to that.

Dan: Well thankfully it turns out they were not wasp nests. Actually they were a kind of mushroom called Clathrus ruber, or the caged stinkhorn. I’m a bit of a mushroom guy, so I was very excited to find these in the yard.

Gemma: OK Dan, I’m googling it. Clathrus ruber. Wow. Wow. It looks like something from Star Trek.

Dan: So they’re this crazy looking thing about the size of a large grapefruit. They’re full of big holes and they’re this like demonic red colour. And they’re called stinkhorns because they smell bad so there was actually flies flying in and out of them, not wasps.

Gemma: This is a great mother’s day gift for your mum, Dan.

Dan: Well, I got rid of it, so you know, gotta do what you gotta do. But anyways, it was a fun surprise – cool fungus growing in an unexpected place. And this is exactly what our next story is actually about. Except that instead of looking for mushrooms in my mother’s yard, this researcher went to the world’s largest seed bank and found not just cool fungus but some entirely new species.

Rowena Hill: I’m Rowena Hill and I’m based at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Queen Mary University of London. And I study the diversity and evolution of fungi. Science knows of about 150,000 species currently. And the latest estimate is that there’s over 6 million species out there. So there’s a massive gap in what we know about fungi. And these will be, you know, microscopic things that we can’t even see with the naked eye. So we’re not aware of them cause they’re in the soil, they’re in the air, they’re inside us, they’re on us.

Dan: So what is it exactly that you are studying and how did you kind of first get into this?

Rowena: In a way I have no idea how I ended up working on fungi. The thing about them is we don’t really hear about them. They’re not really present when we learn about the natural world at school, or even when I was at university studying biology, I didn’t really hear much about fungi. And so the summer of my first year of my undergraduate degree, I think I just decided they were cool and weird and interesting. And I contacted the mycology department at Kew and asked if I could volunteer or shadow somebody and learn a bit about fungi. And the rest is history really and I’ve been stuck with them since.

And, the fungi that I am interested in are fungal endophytes and this is the technical term for fungi which we find inside plants. So in the same way that us humans, we have a microbiome, we have micro organisms living inside us that are important for our health. It’s the same in plants. They have a natural microbiome and fungal component of that.

Dan: OK so we’ve got these fungal endophytes. You know, people know that fungi can break down leaves in the woods and stuff, and they’ll mould in your shower. What do these fungal endophytes do?

Rowena: We know much less about plant microbiomes compared to human ones. But we think that this balance of fungi that are inside plants is important for their health. And this will be a huge functional range, right? So some things will have the capacity maybe to become pathogens and cause disease. Other things will be actively beneficial to the plant.

Dan: Where do they grow in plants? I’m imagining little tendrils of fungus growing surrounding the cells. Is that an accurate representation?

Rowena: Yeah, basically the hyphae, which is what you can think of as like the tissue of the fungus that’s made up of is growing in between the plant cells. And this is in the leaves and the stem and in this case, in this study that we looked at, in the seeds.

Dan: You went looking for them, not out in plants growing in the world, but somewhere else. Can you explain to me where that place is and what does it look like?

Rowena: As I said before, you know, I work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Kew is a collections-based institute so that means it has these amazing natural history collections. It has dried plants, dried fungi, and it has the Millennium Seed Bank. The Millennium Seed Bank is based in the UK countryside. Much more quaint than like an Arctic vault, but it’s called Wakehurst Place where the seed bank is located and it’s just a big building that has a big underground vault where all of these billions of seeds are stored frozen.

Numbered jars containing seeds on shelves.
One of the storage vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank, where over a billion seeds are stored in the dark. James King-Holmes/Alamy Stock Photo

Dan: Tell me about how are we looking for the little fungus.

Rowena: As is often the case when we work with micro fungi, so microscopic fungi, we’re just usually relying on DNA. So these aren’t often tangible things that we can sort of see and hold. We’re just having to sequence the DNA from inside seeds and then from that, we can discover what fungi might be inside.

Not all fungi can grow in the lab, some are a bit fussier. But for the ones that we could, we would sterilise the outside of seeds to make sure we weren’t just getting any old fungus that was a contamination from outside. Once we’ve sterilised the outside of the seed, we can put that straight on an agar dish and then hopefully something grows. And for the ones that we were sequencing the DNA, we would crush the seeds up and just extract any DNA that we could from inside the seed. And then we use what is called a barcode. So in the same way that in a shop, you have a unique barcode identifier on a product and you scan it and you can know what that product is, we use a gene which we call a barcode. In fungi, it’s called ITS. And if we sequence that specific barcode gene, we can then try and figure out what fungi you might be present inside.

Dan: How many seeds have you guys looked at to date?

Rowena: I believe the number is 1,710.

Dan: Oh you gave me the exact number!

Rowena: Yeah. Well, you know, science.

Dan: OK. So you’ve got these 1,710 seeds. You crush up some of them to extract the genetics and then do some sequencing. And then these other ones, you just kind of plop on the agar gel and starts to grow. What does that look?

Rowena: When you study microfungi and you’re growing them in what we call cultures. When you grow them on, agar, you’d be amazed how the numbers can add up. You end up with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of petri dishes stacked up on the lab benches. And you also have to sort of be on top of them, cause these are living fungi. You know, you have to keep checking back and making sure they’re not getting contaminated, re-plate them onto new petri dishes. So you end up with quite an impressive array of towers of fungi and also all sorts of different colours, all sorts of different textures. They’re really what I think, I’m probably biased, but they’re quite beautiful.

Dan: You have all these fungi growing in your lab and you did all this genetic sequencing. What did you find?

Rowena: Yeah, so, a major question was can we find fungal endophytes? Are they alive? Can we grow them? And what does that diversity look like? And so in looking at just six species of wild bananas we found almost 200 species of fungi. And what we found was that the habitat that the seeds had been collected from in the wild actually dictated partially what kind of fungi we were finding.

So it will be quite important in the future maybe for when seed collectors are out there in the wild collecting seeds to think about what habitat they’re collecting from, and maybe collect from a mixture of habitats to ensure that we’re going to store a good range of microbiomes.

Dan: So we found 200 species. A lot of these are probably mysterious. Are you like, “Oh, this one might be the next anthrax”? Are you like running around scared in your lab or something?

Rowena: Yeah. I mean, the big question with endophytes is, yeah, what are they doing in the plant? We did a bit of exploratory analysis where we basically had a look at the germination of the stored seeds and whether or not they were alive, and we could see actually from this analysis that whether or not these seeds managed to germinate, and if they were alive or not, correlated with certain endophyte species that we were recovering. So there’s sort of an implication there that there might be some interaction where yeah, some of these species are helping the seeds germinate and some aren’t. But that, going on, that will require sort of further analysis where we do experimental tests where you inoculate, maybe the fungus in the plant to figure out if it’s helping or hindering. And also looking at the whole genome of the fungi to figure out if there’s genetic elements that we can identify.

Dan: What are some of the potentials here that this work could unlock?

Rowena: So there is research ongoing out there that is looking out the potential for these fungal endophytes to be used on crops in agriculture. The idea is that in the same way that we like preserving the wild relatives of crops in that maybe we can breed some useful plant genes into our crops, there’s a similar idea that maybe we can use the microbiome of the wild relatives and inoculate that into our crops and get added benefits. So there’s a lot of interest in the idea that maybe we can use fungal endophytes, microorganisms, as sustainable bio-control measures instead of having to use, you know, so many pesticides and damaging things like that. Maybe we could use natural solutions.

Ultimately antibiotics, immunosuppressants, statins and things like these were all found in fungi originally. And also our human society is hugely reliant on these sort of cryptic microbial fungi. We use fungi in detergents and in manufacturing. And of course like a huge part of our food industry is based on fungi. You know every time you have a beer or you have some bread, you’re enjoying the labours of fungi.

Dan: You can read Rowena’s story about her research as part of The Conversation’s Insights series by clicking on the link in the show notes.

This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.

Gemma: Now to end the show we’ve got some recommended reading from one of our colleagues in Australia about a special series that she’s been working on.

Carissa: Hello, my name is Carissa Lee and I’m the Indigenous and public policy commissioning editor for The Conversation, based in Melbourne. The story I’ve chosen to look at has been part of our Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody series, because we had the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report as of April 15 this year. Since the royal commission, there have been 474 more deaths of Aboriginal people in custody. And that is said to be an underestimation because we’ve had about five in the last month, which is just shocking.

The articles that I’m highlighting are by Alison Whittaker from University of Melbourne and Amanda Stoker for the University of Technology Sydney.

Alison Whittaker’s piece is a focus on the inquests into these deaths and why they’re so important and why they also need to be possibly reshaped. There needs to be a bit more consultation with the families involved as they feel often that they’ve been sidelined by court procedures.

The other article is about the media representation of Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal deaths in custody, and Amanda Porter and Eddie Cubillo investigate how insensitive reporting has led to catering to really bad stereotypes of Aboriginal people and how it’s gone against the report into deaths in custody’s recommendation of how Indigenous people should be represented in the media.

I think one takeaway from both of these stories and a reoccurring theme throughout Royal Commission series is that First Nations people or Aboriginal people need to be part of the processes into looking at how we can address deaths in custody. For example, it’s been recommended that when First Nations people are being arrested, they’re taken to see health professionals rather than taken to see police because a lot of these deaths that are happening from chronic illnesses. The deaths could have been avoided.

So thanks for listening and keep reading The Conversation.

Gemma: Carissa Lee there in Australia. That’s it for this week. Thanks to all the academics who’ve spoken to us for this episode. This episode would not have been possible without the help of Namita Kohli in New Delhi. And thanks to The Conversation editors Alexandra Hasen, Josephine Lethbridge, Carissa Lee, Sunanda Creagh and Stephen Khan. And thanks to Alice Mason, Imriel Morgan and Sharai White for our social media and marketing.

Dan: You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio or on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or email us at And if you want to learn more about any of the things we talked about on the show today, there are links to further reading in the show notes. You can also sign up to our free daily email.

Gemma: The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

Dan: And I’m Dan Merino. Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next week.

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