New Indian COVID-19 strains highly transmissible and dangerous: AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria

It is imperative to maintain ‘Covid-appropriate behaviour’, he said, adding, “India needs to go back to aggressive measures of testing, contact tracing and isolating infections”

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

NH Web Desk

The Director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Dr Randeep Guleria has said that herd immunity for coronavirus is a "myth" in India because at least 80 per cent people need to have antibodies for the whole of the population to be protected.

He also highlighted that the new Indian strains found in Maharashtra could be highly transmissible and dangerous, and can even cause re-infections in people who have developed anti-bodies to the virus in an interview to NDTV on Saturday.

NDTV quoted Dr Shahshank Joshi, member of Maharashtra's Covid Task Force, as saying, “240 new strains of the virus have surfaced across India, which are behind the fresh surge of infections the state has been witnessing since last week.”

Besides Maharashtra, four more states -- Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Punjab -- have been witnessing a spike in numbers.

The government's vaccination plan depends on creating herd immunity by immunising a critical mass of people. In the first phase of vaccination, the government plans to immunise 3 crore health workers and frontline workers. After it will be the turn of 27 crore people who are above the age of 50 years or have co-morbidities.

Explaining why herd immunity is not achievable, Dr Guleria said: “Mutations or variants in the virus have ‘immune escape mechanism’. They can threaten the immunity achieved by a person through vaccinations or the disease and cause re-infection.”

Under the circumstances, he said it is imperative to maintain ‘Covid-appropriate behaviour’. "India needs to go back to aggressive measures of testing, contact tracing and isolating infections," he added.

Asked if the COVID-19 vaccines in India be effective against the new strain, Dr Guleria said the vaccines will be effective, but their efficacy might be less. For example, people might not be able to avoid getting the disease, but they will have a mild version of it.

Dr Guleria reiterated this while speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday in a session on his book "Till We Win: India's Fight Against The Covid-19 Pandemic" -- co-authored by public policy and health systems expert Chandrakant Lahariya and renowned vaccine researcher and virologist Gagandeep Kang.

"Herd immunity is something that is going to be very, very difficult to achieve and it is something one should not really think of in practical terms... because the variant strains and varying immunity with times can lead to a chance where people may have reinfection or get infection again," he said

Dr Guleria also gave the example of Brazilian city Manaus which even after having achieved the herd immunity in October is now battling the second COVID-19 wave.

"They (Brazil) had claimed that they got heard immunity with almost 70 per cent of the population being protected because of the past infection, and yet because of the Brazilian variant and waning immunity a large number of people got infected again. And now they are in a very bad situation because of resurgence of cases," he noted.

He also asserted that no sero surveys done so far has suggested India being "anyway near" achieving the herd immunity.

Over 21 per cent of the population, aged 10 years and above, showed evidence of past exposure to COVID-19 in the Indian Council of Medical Research''s (ICMR) latest national sero-survey out on February 4.

Stressing on the importance of vaccination, which he said is essential in India's fight against the coronavirus, he said they too will change with time tackling not only the "emerging variants" but giving more robust immunity lasting for a longer period of time.

"What we have today is not the only vaccine, we will have better vaccines as time moves on and as research moves on. But right now we should take what we have if we want to really make sure that the situation in our country does not deteriorate," he added.

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Published: 21 Feb 2021, 2:45 PM