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Vaccinating As Many People As Possible Should Be The Top Priority, Says Ebola Virus’s Co-Discoverer On India’s COVID-19 Crisis

Professor Peter Piot, one of the discoverers of the Ebola virus in 1976, and the coronavirus advisor for European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen talks about the lessons India can learn about COVID-19 from the global experience

Speed up vaccine manufacturing but also make sure that so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions like wearing masks, distancing are also fully respected: Professor Peter Piot
Highlights
  • Don’t be complacent with COVID-19 precautions: Peter Piot
  • This pandemic will not be over until it’s over everywhere: Peter Piot
  • Ending COVID-19 is important for saving lives and economies: Peter Piot

New Delhi: India’s fight against the deadly second wave of COVID-19 pandemic has been crippled by the shortage of vaccine in the country. Last week, the government widened the gap between two doses of Serum Institute of India’s Covidshield vaccine to 12-16 weeks from 6-8 weeks. On the other hand, owing to the concerns over the rapidly transmissible variant B.1.617.2 from India, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has reduced the gap between the two doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, (which is called Covishield in India) from 12 weeks to 8 weeks, for those above the age of 50.

NDTV reached out to Professor Peter Piot, one of the discoverers of the Ebola virus in 1976, and Director at London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine. He is also the coronavirus advisor for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and has spent his career fighting infectious diseases. He spoke to NDTV on the lessons India can learn from the global experience.

Also Read: Singapore Warns New Virus Strains Infecting More Children, Shuts Schools

As the world watches the news about India and how the country is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. There is a humanitarian crisis arising out of this pandemic. There are going to be inequalities in vaccine distributions, which could split the world. What response does India need to see from the world?

Professor Peter Piot: This pandemic will not be over until it’s over everywhere. It is in the interest of every country that all other countries are bringing this epidemic under control. We are in a world of high inequality in terms of vaccine coverage. Which is not only important for saving lives but also for saving economies. The countries which have higher vaccine coverage will be able to relaunch their economies so, what can be done? India is a fast country and only Indians can solve this problem and bring it under control. However, the least that the world can do, is that we know India is the largest producer of vaccines in the world, so we can ensure that there are no export restrictions. We had the news from the US, where they are imposing patents on vaccines and I don’t think that’s very relevant. What will help right now is to lift the ban on exporting raw materials, ingredients, that Indian manufacturers of vaccines definitely need to produce enough vaccines. Vaccinating as many people as possible should be the top priority in addition to caring for people with oxygen, Remdesivir, and other drugs. Vaccinate dense urban population and get as many people the first injection as possible. That will at least provide decent protection.

Given the fact that we are the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, it is in the world’s best interest that India overcomes this second wave because then we will be able to play that role of producing the vaccines for the entire world. Is that correct?

Professor Peter Piot: Absolutely, it is in the best interest of India first of all to save its citizens but it is also in the interest of the world because if India can’t produce enough vaccines for exports, continents like Africa won’t have any vaccines and the bedrock of vaccines for Covax, which is an initiative by Gavi and CEPI to provide vaccines to low-income countries, depends really on Indian manufacturers. So, I think the lesson that we’ve learned now over and over again is don’t declare victory too early.

I just heard that there is possibly good news in decline in new infections but one that has to be confirmed and we know that the official figures are a gross underestimate and that’s not just the case in India, because not everybody has tested, who had it and not every death is recorded. But also, if you relax too early, as was the case in India, as we’ve done in UK and US and so on, means that we’re in for trouble with millions of death as a consequence.

So, continue the vaccination efforts, speed up vaccine manufacturing but also make sure that so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions like wearing masks, distancing are also fully respected.

Also Read: COVID-19 Rapidly Spreading In Rural Areas: PM Narendra Modi

England is preparing to majorly ease up the restrictions from Monday but now PM says that he is anxious about the rise in COVID-19 variant which was first identified in India. This variant is becoming more prevalent ahead of the ease of restrictions to the lockdown. How worrying is this?

Professor Peter Piot: Indeed it is true that the evolution of the epidemic here has gone in the right direction, compared to January when the mortality was bad and it was even worse than what India is facing right now. We have now over 50 percent of adults who are vaccinated with at least 1 injection. So, it’s a really good development, however, what’s going on here illustrates that we can never be complacent. Certainly, it is far too early to declare victory. Just as the British variant is common in many parts of India, we now have in some pockets of the country, particularly, Manchester, where we now have rapidly growing infections with the Indian variant which is very worrisome. Since it looks like it is extremely transmissible.

The way to handle this is to have a very targeted approach with lots of testing and also redoubling vaccination in the populations who are most vulnerable.

We a similar storm here before Christmas, like it is in India right now. Pre-Christmas, people were having mass gatherings, partying and then a new variant emerged. Therefore, there is no time for complacency, that’s the big message here.

What are the lessons India can learn from global experience, or from England’s experience because the country has just emerged triumphant from the second wave.

Professor Peter Piot: The first lesson is indeed, that don’t take anything for granted. When you see the slightest rise of infections, you have to act. Don’t wait to act until people are dying, hospitals are full when ICU is can no longer accommodate more patients and receive the people that need intensive care. So, act early, no time to lose is really a slogan, I would say. The fact that India is the largest vaccine producer in the world, has one of the lowest vaccination rates, that’s something that’s beyond my comprehension. That should also be a top priority now for the whole world.

But all that requires very strong leadership at all levels. I’ve been to India many times and every time I’ve been impressed at how big the country is, so it has to be dealt with at each level. With vaccine where you make the biggest difference is usually where there are dense populations, so to prevent spillover to the rest of the country.

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 (WaterSanitation 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 pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene

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