Even as a surge in Covid cases in China has caused global concern, including in India, the country’s top virologist is categorical that there is “absolutely no reason to panic and nothing has changed in the last two weeks”.
Amidst high-level meetings by the Centre and a media panic over the presence in India of the Coronavirus Omicron variant BF.7 that is responsible for the China surge, CMC Vellore virologist Dr Gagandeep Kang allayed fears in an exclusive interview with South First: “Despite the presence of this variant (BF.7) and other variants that is circulating in China, I don’t see anything changing at least next week or for the next couple of weeks.”
For one, there aren’t a lot of Covid-19 cases in India.
While people are talking about Covid coming back, Dr Kang said: “It never went away for it to come back. It’s always been there. However, at a relatively low level over the past several months. In terms of the variant China is seeing, we have had this variant for a while, and the variant has not gone out of control in India.”
Explaining how the increase of cases in China does not automatically mean things will get bad for India, Dr Kang said: “For China, the situation was not good before they started to open up, and it will become much worse in the coming days.
“The variants that are present in China are variants that we are familiar with, and we have seen they have not gone out of control in India. There is no reason to think they may suddenly go out of control.”
Can the situation change?
“The only thing that can change the situation here is if we see a new variant — one we have not seen before. A variant that is capable of immune escape. Not only immune escape, but one that also causes severe disease,” Dr Kang explained.
However, she added that, at the moment, none of the Omicron variants have been worse than the Delta variant that India has seen. Even though some of the variants have been good at immune escape, they are not causing the level of severity of disease that India saw with the Delta variant last year.
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What’s worrying about China?
There is, however, a need to keep a close watch on what is happening in China. There will be a lot of viruses in circulation in that country in the coming months. The Chinese population will have a lot of infections, a lot of diseases, perhaps a lot of deaths too.
In such a scenario, Dr Kang explained: “We know that whenever a virus multiplies in the population there are chances that a new variant will emerge. It is not a guarantee… but it is a chance.”
If a new variant emerges, the government needs to see if that variant is highly transmissible. What is the severity of the disease? Is it making more people sick and sending them to hospitals?
“One good way to know if a variant is becoming important or not is to see if, from week to week, the percentage that the variant contributes to the total cases is increasing or not. They should see if the variant is transmissible, is capable of causing severe disease. If this is happening, then we will have something to worry about,” she added.
Government measures in the right direction?
Dr Kang said that sequencing of strains detected in travellers from abroad is a worthwhile precaution, and upping the genome surveillance in the country is a good move. However, she said introducing Air Suvidha forms may not be of much help.
“I am not sure of what we can do with Air Suvidha forms as it essentially asks whether one is ill or their vaccination history. If anyone has decided to travel when they are ill, they wouldn’t obviously be filling in the Air Suvidha form accurately. Also, in terms of vaccination, we have known that with Omicron, vaccination doesn’t mean much and it can infect quite frequently,” she said.
She said that, in general, we should have a baseline of sequencing across the country.
“If we start to see an increase in number of cases or cluster of cases; or if we know that a lot of (people) coming in from China are coming with a new variant… then those are the cases where we must be ramping up sequencing even more,” Dr Kang said.
What about testing?
Meanwhile, on testing, Dr Kang said it is important for severe disease and emerging clusters. But in India, there is no such situation as of now.
“Every hospital should be testing patients coming in with severe disease — as well as other severe respiratory illness — for Covid-19. If we see clusters of respiratory illness, then we need to test to see if the illness is due to Covid-19.”
However, if one has cold-like symptoms that gets better after a few days, then it doesn’t make any sense to be testing for Covid-19 anymore, Dr Kang said.
Covid-19 boosters — yes or no?
Dr Kang is doubtful of the protection offered by the two available vaccines — Covishield and Covaxin — against the Omicron variants. Why? Because both these vaccines were made to target the Wuhan strain of the Covid-19 virus and those strains are not circulating in India any more.
“Ninety percent of the country has taken two doses of vaccine, and about 90 percent of them has been naturally infected with Covid-19 — and most of the infections were omicron. So we have pretty good hybrid immunity,” she pointed out.
However, she said that recent data from other parts of the world show “that in the older populations, if you take a bivalent booster, that gives you an increased level of protection.”
“Hence, if you are an older person taking a booster is a good idea. However, I am not certain on how much benefit it would have for younger people given the fact that we have had high levels of hybrid immunity,” she explained.
A final word
What the Indian government is trying to do is to be ready to sequence; making sure that our preparedness is in place, said Dr Kang.
While all this is good, hyping things up and declaring mandates when nothing has changed from the last couple of weeks is unwarranted.
“I am not sure how useful they are,” she said.