Covid-19: No cause for panic, say experts

Virologists and immunologists in the country assert there is no need to panic. India has been reporting a decline in the number of Covid-19 cases.

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Getty Images

Ashlin Mathew

India has registered only 131 fresh infections in the last 24 hours, but in the backdrop of news that Covid-19 cases are rising in neighbouring China, a sense of alarm is being spread. However, virologists and immunologists in the country assert there is no need to panic. India has been reporting a decline in the number of Covid-19 cases.

The Omicron BF.7 variant of COVID-19 is believed to be driving the reported surge of cases in China, but these variants were identified in India in Gujarat and Odisha in July and September this year. But, there was no reported increase in severity of cases in either of the two states.

In India, the dominant Covid-19 variant is Omicron AB5 (which is linked to BF.7), but they have been limited in numbers. In the recent meeting chaired by union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya, he pointed out that the new and highly transmissible BF.7 strain of the Omicron variant has been found to be behind a wider surge of COVID infections in China, but simultaneously underscored that India has been witnessing a steady decline in cases with average daily cases falling to 158 in the week ending December 19.

Eminent virologist Dr T Jacob John quipped that worry doesn’t cost anything, so people can stay cautious and asserted that what is happening in China is most unlikely to happen in India. “It is not likely because, firstly it is Omicron and it is not a killer variant. Mortality as a result of Omicron variants is low especially in countries like India where we don’t have a higher percentage of senior citizens. In China, there are more than 20% senior citizens. Therefore, I’m not worried about the variants causing problems in India,” underscored John.

The former director of the Indian Council for Medical Research's Centre of Advanced Research in Virology pointed out that the variant that China has now has been in India for some time already. “There is no new variant India can get from China. According to the global Covid-19 database, China’s last wave started in mid-November, peaked on December 10 and has been steadily coming down. China has for long denied having any problem and suddenly the country has a strong wave. But, I don’t know who is creating this panic in India. It is good to be cautious, but I don’t see any epidemiological sense in worrying now.”

Scientist at CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology(IGIB) Dr Vinod Scaria noted that while the world was slowly crawling back to normalcy, suffering huge losses in lives, and learning to live in a pandemic with masks, vaccines, boosters, antivirals, and suffering multiple waves of infections, China remained isolated in many ways.

“In terms of antiviral immunity, this meant the use of early vaccines which are poorer in immunogenicity and population immunity largely due to vaccines (and waning rapidly) and not by infections in the face of omicron variants, which are very adept at evading immunity/immune escape,” explained Scaria.

If there is one key public health lesson from the experience of COVID19 pandemic, observed senior public health specialist at the George Institute of Global Health Dr Oommen John, it is to not have knee jerk reactions.

Since sequencing data about ongoing outbreaks in China is not yet available, one doesn’t know if it is Coronavirus in the first place. India has enhanced its disease surveillance capacity and augmented availability of genomic sequence across the nation. These system level interventions are likely to insulate India from catastrophic consequences of any emerging infectious disease threats, added Oommen John.

Jacob John too questioned if India was sure that all the news of deaths in China and hearses being piled up at crematoriums were because of Covid-19. “We can’t trust news that is coming out of China. China may have a political reason for releasing such news. Truth is always a casualty whenever there is a need to hoodwink people. We have no reason to worry about Coronavirus at the end of December 2022,” reiterated Jacob John.  

However, he cautioned that India has to keep a watch globally. He suggested that wearing a mask would be a good idea because this is influenza season. “This is not adding to the panic. I’m recommending that all hospital campuses throughout India should be compulsorily mask-wearing because the proportion of people with respiratory illness in hospitals is several times higher than outside the hospital campus,” added Jacob John.

India has officially reported more than 4.4 crore COVID-19 cases since March 2020 and 5.3 lakh deaths, though independent investigations pin the numbers to be higher. Currently, the union healthy ministry states that there are 3,401 active Covid-19 cases in the country.

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