- Dr VK Paul dismissed the relation between outbreak of COVID-19 and mutation
- Dr Paul called to intensify precautionary measures to control the upswing
- Private sector engagement will become deeper in vaccination: Dr Paul
New Delhi: India’s Coronavirus vaccination drive that was launched on January 16 is picking up pace and the country has already administered over 1.17 crore vaccine doses to healthcare and frontline workers. Amid the vaccination process, there is news of mutant strains of Novel Coronavirus and a worry that whether or not the two COVID-19 vaccines currently being used in India will work against mutations. According to Dr VK Paul, Member (Health), NITI Aayog, both Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin work against the UK strain. The efficacy of vaccines against other strains is being tested upon, he added. Dr Paul who is also the Chairman of the National Expert Group on vaccine implementation for COVID-19 informed that as more and more sections of the population become eligible for the vaccination, the role of the private sector in the COVID-19 vaccination drive will expand.
NDTV: Is the new mutant strain discovered in Maharashtra indigenous or a foreign strain?
Dr VK Paul: We should wait for official statements on this as you know since the potential advent of the UK strain in other countries we have ramped up our capabilities for the sequencing of the COVID-19 virus. We have set up a network of very powerful, world class laboratories, already existent in the country and strengthened them to look at the new strains for doing a massive range of sequencing of the virus that would be found in our country. Based on this, it is our understanding that at the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that these outbreaks are related to any particular mutant to which these could be attributed but we are watching it constantly and we are reviewing the situation regularly. Yes, when a situation arises in which a quiescent pandemic suddenly escalates in a particular region as an outbreak then one must consider several factors including the social behaviour, other factors that change the behaviour of the virus say season. It could just be a variant which is now more transmissible. These questions are in mind and are systematically being approached. Let’s wait and watch. At the same time, take every measure to contain this outbreak in particular regions of our country.
NDTV: Are there differences in the mutant strains which have been discovered so far in Maharashtra?
Dr VK Paul: The virus is mutating all the time. A virus has the nature to naturally mutate into different variants to an extent. Whether that variant causes excess transmissibility or does it confer any particular advantage to the virus that needs to be related to the pandemic situation. That is an investigation which is a deep investigation. I would not like to comment on this information.
NDTV: Would it be fair or unfair to say at this stage that the increased COVID-19 count in parts of Maharashtra is directly linked to these mutant strains?
Dr VK Paul: I would definitely not say that at this stage. I would say that this virus was lurking all the time in our country. A large proportion of our people are still vulnerable going by the sero-survey. We are also aware that now that the pandemic has had a very intense phase in large cities, the more dense cities, it is obvious that the pandemic would move to somewhat smaller cities and that also has to be kept in mind. All the possible reasons for this outbreak – which of course are a signal for us to be very cautious and continue to be very watchful – should be kept in mind. We have to control the pandemic through the rule book, through which we were able to control the pandemic in a very significant way. We must make those efforts doubly serious.
NDTV: When will we get a statistic on how much more transmissible the new mutant strains are if indeed they are? Tell us about the scientific process.
Dr VK Paul: We set up a collaborative in December when the UK variant became visible in the UK and found evidence that it could enter other nations. We know that some cases of South African strain, the UK and even Brazilian strain have been found in the country. But I think to guess beyond that at this moment is not appropriate. We should not cause panic at all. A very serious scientific effort by the top laboratories and scientists is underway. They are watching the situation and will be clarified as the data emerges.
NDTV: Given the situation in Maharashtra, whether it is from these new strains or it is perhaps the existing dominant strain. The fact is that the numbers have gone up. Should there be restrictions on air and rail transport going forward?
Dr VK Paul: We have been fighting this pandemic through other four pillars namely our appropriate behaviour and our strategy of testing, testing that leads to isolation of cases, quarantine of contacts and containment and then, of course, our preparedness in terms of looking after the individuals who have the disease. We must intensify these efforts like we have done in the past. We must also remember that right now it is just the early upswing and it is easier to control the pandemic in the earlier situation than when it reaches a much higher level of intensity. We much intensify our efforts and keep in mind the option of containment and restriction as required. But the fundamentals of pandemic control need to be invoked and intensified and never forgotten. This virus has not yet gone away. Today it is an issue in some district. Tomorrow it could be in some other districts. This is a warning to us that our vision and efforts which has stood the test of time must never be lowered.
NDTV: Will any of the vaccines we have work on new mutant strains. Should these become a problem for us?
Dr VK Paul: We know that Covishield continues to work in the UK strain. There are some doubts on whether it will have a poor efficiency for the South African strain. We have demonstrated it in a lab that Bharat Biotech-ICMR’s COVID-19 vaccine Covaxin works against the UK mutant strain as well. We are working on other virus isolates and to see the efficacy of the vaccines on those strains.
NDTV: When should COVID-19 cases here onwards be sequenced to see if they are the new mutant strains?
Dr VK Paul: Protocol is already in operation and it is our intent to sequence 5 per cent of the isolates in a systematic way across the country and that is why these labs are set up in different regions of the country.
NDTV: When will the private sector be able to vaccinate citizens particularly those above the age of 50?
Dr VK Paul: Presently also, the private sector has been eminently involved in vaccination programme for the healthcare and frontline workers. Out of 10,000 vaccination sessions on any given day, 2,000 are being conducted by private sector partners and they have done splendid work. And as we move to a much speedier programme, the private sector engagement will become deeper and wider in a matter of a few days. I assure you that the private sector will play a very important role to augment the speed and reach of our vaccination programme. It is a partnership of both the public and private sector.
NDTV: When will the Sputnik vaccine be cleared? Is there any way to speed up the vaccination process for under 50 citizens?
Dr VK Paul: We are very happy that Sputnik has applied for emergency use in India. Dr Reddy’s Laboratories has applied for authorisation on behalf of Sputnik. That process will unfold in the coming days. We undertake this process very expeditiously because we want as many vaccine options being made available to our people as possible. I hope emergency authorisation will come soon and even hope that they will start manufacturing in our country in a large amount. Because the larger the volume available to us, the speedier will be our coverage.
For people below 50 years, the whole thinking is that we are firstly targeting those people who are most vulnerable to suffer from the ill-effects of COVID-19 and ultimately the risk of mortality. Yes, under 50 years of age also there are people who have a higher risk of such propensity and that typically is when they have other diseases like cancer. A criterion for people below 50 years with comorbidities has been finalized and will be made public very soon.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. 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 highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. 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 become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.