Vaccine Godmother of India
Dr Gagandeep Kang
Vaccine Godmother of India
Dr Gagandeep Kang Vaccine Godmother of India
Sprightly microbiologist and virologist, Dr Gagandeep Kang, also known as the ‘Vaccine Godmother of India’, led the nation’s fight against Covid-19. At the forefront when crisis was rife, she believes education is the route to progress
A lifetime dedicated to research for the betterment of public health sector, Dr Gagandeep Kang is known as the ‘Vaccine Godmother of India’. Humble and down-to-earth, the acclaimed microbiologist and virologist believes learning—a habit she has inherited from her family—never stops. Her persistence and hard work have won her many firsts in the world of science.
In 2019, she became the first Indian woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 359 years. She is the first Indian and the first woman to edit Manson’s Textbook of Tropical Medicine and was made a member of the US National Academy of Medicine in 2022. However, laurels have not changed her demeanour and she remains as humble as ever.
A professor in the Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, Dr Kang says she will be living in Vellore after her retirement as well. She has served on many World Health Organisation (WHO) committees related to vaccines from 2011 onwards, but most recently, from 2020 to 2022, she has been an ex-officio member of a working group on Covid-19 vaccines established by the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts at WHO. The acclaimed scientist co-authored the book Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The Covid-19 Pandemic with Chandrakant Lahariya, a leading doctor and public health policy expert, and Randeep Guleria, the director of AIIMS, New Delhi. “Covid-19 engendered many questions among friends, family and the public; I needed to provide answers,” she says.
As for the book she shares, “It was suggested by Chandrakant Lahariya, he asked Dr. Randeep Guleria and me to contribute. It was difficult to find time, since we were busy with a range of activities related to the pandemic. “I wrote the chapters on virus epidemics and pandemics, tracing the history of outbreaks and more. I also penned the chapters on developing vaccines and drugs. My chapters are the most technical ones.”
With many theories and myths circulating during the initial phase of the pandemic, Dr Kang’s expertise and knowledge helped citizens understand their healthcare needs. She had been studying the virus since its emergence during her tenure (August 2016-August 2020) as the Executive Director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI), Faridabad, an autonomous institute of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. “CMC has a provision of giving sabbaticals and I was at THSTI for four years.”
During that time, she mainly focused on supporting the faculty advance their knowledge about science that aimed at application, and building platforms for large-scale projects from vaccine evaluation and diagnostics to clinical research training. The success of these endeavours and their sustainability was obvious after Dr. Kang left the institution, when THSTI supported many industries to develop vaccines and diagnostics.
PROUD OF HER ROOTS
Dr Kang’s lineage goes to village Samrala in Punjab, where her ancestors were given the title of ‘numberdar’. But her grandfather and, subsequently, father gave this up to their brother and cousin. “Both my paternal and maternal grandparents came to India after Partition. They faced their share of trials and tribulations, even though both my grandfathers were employed by the government. The families were large and the salaries as well as pensions low. They did get land compensation from the government, but it didn’t suffice as it came late and my paternal grandfather’s land was mainly sandy, not suitable for agriculture,” she recalls.
Her paternal grandfather, Chandan Singh Kang, was an executive engineer with the government and built many irrigation canals in Punjab, Pakistan. “These canals were built during the 1920s to 40s. The British government also sent my grandfather to England for training. My maternal grandfather was a forest officer and lived in Shimla. We always called him ‘Pitaji’. My father, Gurbhajan Singh Kang, was around 18 years old during Partition and my mother, Paramjit Dhanoya, would have been about 12 years old at the time.”
Paramjit Kang (Gagandeep’s mother) and Gagandeep.
Dr Kang’s paternal grandfather had seven children, so there was immense financial pressure. “It was a little bit easier on my maternal grandfather’s side because he was posted to Shimla in the Forest Service and only had four children. The state was then Punjab and later got divided into Himachal Pradesh. My mother did her schooling there, and then came down from the hills to complete her BA and MA.”
Dr Kang’s father completed his BA and MA in Sanskrit, despite his weak health. He would fall sick often, but was determined and sat for the entrance test to join the Navy. He passed the examination, but could not clear the physical tests. After this, he decided to appear in an open exam for the Indian Railways. As he received training to become a mechanical engineer, it became a milestone for the learner inside Dr Kang.
Parents Paramjit and Gurbhajan Singh Kang.
“It was 1949 and he was sent for what was called Special Class Apprentice (Mechanical) training in Jamalpur, Bihar, after which he was posted to the Western Railway.”