New Delhi: There is currently a small uptick in COVID-19 cases in India and there have been reports that the Omicron hybrid strain XE is circulating in some parts of the country, raising doubts about a possible fourth wave.
To know more about the new COVID waves and what India can do to avert another wave, team Banega Swasth India speaks with Dr. Rommel Tickoo, Director, Internal Medicine, Max Super Specialty Hospital.
Here’s what he said about India’s fight against COVID-19:
NDTV: How dangerous are the new COVID variants and what do we know about the presence of these new variants in India?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: The new COVID variant that currently is in focus is the XE variant that is a recombinant strain, which is basically a combination of sub-variants of Omicron – BA.1 and BA.2. As per what we have seen so far, it is similar to Omicron. It doesn’t seem to be very dangerous as it doesn’t cause a severe disease. The symptoms are same as Omicron variant of COVID like scratchy throat, fever, fatigue, cough. The variant is not leading to complications and people recover fast, they don’t need hospitalisation, they don’t need to monitor their oxygen levels, all these critical points make this variant less severe. And in that sense, we are saying there is nothing to worry. We are only worried because there can be a new variant of concern, which is more transmissible, and can cause much severe disease. This XE variant is 10 per cent more transmissible than the BA.2 variant but all said and done, it doesn’t seem to be causing severe disease, hospitalisation and deaths. Therefore we should not panic much.
NDTV: How are we tracking the emergence of new variants in India, has there been an increase in the rate of samples that are being sent for genome sequencing?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: Now, India is doing genome sequencing in a big way, earlier we were not doing much. However, we should know the fact that the number of cases we have now are much less. We have some 1,000 odd cases in a day and active cases are 11,000 in India as of today. When we talk about XE variant, I think there is not much to worry, as this has been with us for three months, the first case was found in January in UK. Since then it has not created a ruckus and it is unlikely to create a big wave. But having said that we should continue to do genome sequencing, we should track the virus as it keeps on evolving and we have to be vigilant so that there is no rise in the cases.
NDTV: What are some of the new or emerging symptoms of COVID, with the emergence of these new variants? What are some of the worrying symptoms of XE?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: Well there are not major worrying symptoms for XE, the symptoms are more or less the same, whether it is fever, fatigue, scratchy throat. A lot of people are complaining of gastronomic intestine issues, diarrhoea, bloating and nausea. And that is what we have seen earlier with Omicron and other variants. Till now, the new emerging variants are not causing any severe disease, symptoms are there but it is more like flu.
NDTV: In India we are seeing easing of the restrictions for masks, for example. What impact will such relaxation have on the spread of the virus?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: I think it is too early to stop wearing the masks. We should continue to wear masks. Most of the times other norms like social distancing and washing hands are not possible, the least i think we can do is to wear a mask. Vaccination and masking are two of our main weapons in fighting COVID. There has been a lot of evidence that suggest that mask do protect individuals from catching the infection. Another reason to wear mask is to protect the unprotected. When we get infected and we have a mild disease, we may not be able to identify ourselves as carriers of the disease as a result we may give the infection to someone who is unprotected or at a higher risk like an elderly.
NDTV: Delhi has started to report an uptick in COVID-19 cases. How appropriate was the decision to ease the mask mandate?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: I think it was a bit early, we have to tell people that they need to wear mask and this is the only thing that can protect us apart from vaccines. We cannot get complacent, we cannot think that the virus is dead and cannot infect us. There is a long way to go, look at the other countries now who are facing severe waves due to COVID. So, just because we have less numbers we should not think that COVID-19 is over and let our guard down.
NDTV: From April 10, India has started giving booster shots to every adult between the age of 18 to 60. How important are booster doses at this stage of the pandemic?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: It is very important. There has been a lot of data and scientific evidence which tells us that booster does are effective as they give our body more immunity and antibodies to fight the infection, thereby preventing us from catching a severe disease. One might get reinfected but will not land up in the hospitals. So, whoever gets eligible should get vaccinated or get their booster dose. In fact some of the countries have started with their fourth shot or second dose of booster, especially for immunocompromised patients and elderly.
NDTV: The gap between the second COVID vaccine jab and third (booster dose) has been decided to be nine months by the government. Should it to be reduced to six months?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: Right now, we don’t have a surge in number of cases. We are at a good space, so a 9 months time seems fine. At some point of time, as the virus evolve, we might have to change this decision and make it 6 months. But till then, 9 months is not bad.
NDTV: If a person gets COVID even after getting two jabs of COVID-19 vaccine then how long should he wait for getting the booster shot?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: Ideally, I would say 3 months later one should take the dose after one has caught COVID, as the natural infection itself gives you enough protection. But if you are immune-compromised or if you have to take it for travel purpose or some other reason, then at least one month gap should be given.
NDTV: There has been a case made for mixing and matching different vaccines, especially in case of the booster, but so far why has India steered clear of allowing mixing and matching of different vaccines?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: There is evidence that mix and matching of vaccine works and leads to increase antibodies. But in India we have been mostly using Covishield and Covaxin. There was one study which was done in Vellore that found that the mix and matching works only when Covaxin is given first, not the other way round. And maximum people in India have got Covishield. Therefore, the mix-n-matching wasn’t taken forward. But, we shouldn’t be worried as there is data that suggests if person take the same vaccine as booster they still get boost in their immunity.
NDTV: How should India prepare itself for dealing with the fourth wave? What are the precautions you will recommend that people should follow?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: As of now, nobody can predict when the fourth wave will hit us, if it will hit us at all. There has been some mathematical calculations that say that in June we will face the fourth wave but nobody can really predict. It will only happen if there is new variant and the numbers start spiking up. We have to be vigilant and wear the mask, it is the most important thing followed by vaccination.
NDTV: WHO has suspended the supply of Covaxin. The suspension was in response to the outcome of a WHO inspection on 14–22 March 2022. What will it mean for people who have taken that vaccine earlier?
Dr. Rommel Tickoo: There is sufficient data that tells us that Covaxin is a very good vaccine and it does protect us from developing severe disease. There is also no major side-effects, it is efficacious and that is why it was given a nod in the first place. Maybe, they need some more data to validate but all said and done, I am pretty sure that enough data will be provided to them and it will be accepted all over the world. Because crores of people have actually given the vaccine and there has been no safety concerns till date.
Dr. Rommel Tickoo signed off with this message,
Please be vigilant, don’t get complacent because the virus is still there and is not dead and gone. Just because we are in a good space for now, doesn’t mean our numbers won’t go up in future. Remember, people can still transfer the disease to more vulnerable people out there. The main weapon is masking and vaccination and we should follow that thoroughly. No body can predict when the waves will happen but I can say for the next 6 to 8 months be vigilant and careful. Life has to go on but at the same time we have to be careful and cautious.
You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.