New Delhi: India has started to witness an uptick in COVID-19 cases with several cities reporting a spike in COVID numbers. National Capital Region of Delhi (NCR), for example, is reporting rising COVID-19 cases among children in schools. NDTV speaks with India’s top biomedical scientist Dr Gagandeep Kang about this sudden rise and if India should prepare itself for another COVID wave.
Talking about COVID cases and if the XE variant is driving the Dr Kang said,
We don’t necessarily know that all of the case that are being reported are of the XE variant unless we sequence them all. The presence of a new variant should always link genomic information with the clinical information with the patient. Just knowing the variant is present has very little significance unless we know the following things like if it is causing a severe disease, in which group it is causing the severe disease, whether these people are vaccinated, if vaccinated then how long ago they were vaccinated, and more. Till we have all this information, it is then we can piece the data together and talk about the variant.
Highlighting the symptoms of XE and what we know about the variant so far, Dr Kang added,
XE is the deliberative of Omicron and in terms of what we know about Omicron is that this virus replicates more on upper respiratory tract than lower respiratory. Symptoms include fever, headache, respiratory problems, it doesn’t include severe symptoms like breathlessness, lung infections etc, the kind that put people into hospitalisation.
India today (April 18) recorded a massive jump in its daily Covid counts, raising fears of another spike in infections. According to the health ministry, as many as 2,183 new Covid cases have been recorded over the past 24 hours, an 89.8 per cent jump from April 17 case count of 1,150 cases. The daily positivity rate, an indicator of the spread of the infection in the population, has increased from 0.31 per cent yesterday (April 17) to 0.83 per cent today (April 18).
Talking about this uptick and if this is the beginning of the fourth wave in the country, Dr Kang added,
I think there is a little bit of stretch. In order to call it a wave, we need to see a sustained increase in cases above baseline for a period of two weeks. We haven’t been there yet; we are continuing to see up and down in terms of cases. One thing we should know is that when restrictions are relaxed and movement start, there will be an increase in the cases and that is what is being seen in India currently. This is also the season of holidays, so we should expect to see an increase in the number of COVID cases. It is definitely a sign of worry, but not an indication of the fourth wave yet.
Dr Kang explained why India’s total cases continue to remain low despite the surge being seen globally, like in the UK and USA. She added,
I actually think, the legacy of last year, is standing us in a very good state. We had absolute devastation last year at this point of time with the Delta wave coming and infecting bulk of our population. I think, what it left behind is booster immunity that was supplemented by vaccination, so we have now got a pretty good protection against the different variants of the virus. Something which we saw during the Omicron wave, wherein the vaccinated people did really well in dealing with the wave. The big question now remains is that how long this protection will last. I hope we will continue to have protection against the disease for few more months and then years to pass.
On the reason why the gap between second dose and the third dose (Booster shot) is prescribed as 9 months by the government and if this is based on scientific data, Dr Kang said,
I think, we don’t yet know if the gap should be 6 months, 9 months or 2 years. The data that specifies this gap really needs to come from detailed immunological studies. To my knowledge there has been no such data available from India that tells us what the ideal gap would be. In fact, we don’t really have the data that tells us that we really need a third dose as well. For a country like ours, it is extremely important that we generate data that allows us to make decisions. This is going to become extremely important the further we go, and particularly if the new variants do emerge that are able to infect the vaccinated individuals and cause the disease.
Stressing what India should focus on and how should it protect the unprotected like our children below the age of 12, who are not vaccinated yet, Dr Kang said,
Multiple sero-surveys that have been done in various states have highlighted the fact that majority of our children have already got infected. For example, in June 2021, the sero-survey highlighted that 60 per cent of children are already infected and most recent surveys show that the figure has gone up to 80 per cent. I think, we should not expect protection from infection as the virus will continue to evolve and it will evolve in a way that allow us to get infected again. The data that the parents should be looking at is really not the cases nor it should be about the children who had mild infection, but the data on how many children went to hospital because of COVID and if we see that then we will realise that the number is very very few. All the data we have from India, it shows that the children who require hospitalisation tends to be children that have some kind of comorbidity. So, looking at the data, India should urgently plan to vaccinate children below 12 who have some kind of comorbidities. For parents, if their child is healthy, they don’t have to worry, these infections will happen.
On the way ahead and how can we make sure that children don’t bring the infection back home, Dr Kang added,
Shutting down schools or a particular wing is not an appropriate step. We need to identify the people who are at the risk of getting severe disease – like our elderly, immunocompromised patients, people with diabetes or who had a transplant. The best thing we can do for them is to develop right strategies. Science informed strategies with the data is what we need to focus on.
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.