New case surges a global worry but India must still aim to prevent a third wave, says WHO’s Dr Swaminathan

World Health Organisation (WHO)’s chief scientist Dr Soumya SwaminathanWorld Health Organisation (WHO)’s chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan. (File Photo)

The pandemic is far from showing signs of slowing down and there are new worries with fresh surge in cases emerging across different countries, cautions Dr Soumya Swaminathan. The worry for the chief scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO) stems from the fact that the delta variant is becoming dominant all over the world with 104 countries documenting it thus far.

Financial Express Online reached out to Dr Swaminathan on where we stand on the still unfolding pandemic and what India needs to be focussed on having just emerged out of debilitating second wave and with fears of a likely third wave on the horizon.

“There are new surges emerging in many countries with huge gaps in vaccination coverage that need to be bridged,” she says describing the current stage of the pandemic as “a critical phase not just in India but also in several other countries around the world.” Some regions in India, she says, “like in the North East are seeing an uptick with relatively high test positivity rate, indicating the need for increased testing. Globally also, Covid cases are rising even in countries with high vaccine coverage.”

Dr Swaminathan attributes the current surge to four main reasons: “apart from the spreading delta variant, there is increased social mixing, cultural and sporting events; relaxation of public health measures; and insufficient vaccine coverage.”

Journey With The Jabs In India

Specifically for India, she says, “the goal should be to prevent a third wave. Till at least 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated (up from less than 5 percent currently), testing, tracking, isolating cases and individual measures like masking, distancing and focus on good ventilation must continue.” In addition, she feels, “efforts must be made to identify reasons for vaccine hesitancy and address them.”

To those who have seen the pictures of the Kumbh mela and the Indian election rallies and now the packed Wembley arena pictures for the Euro cup that are doing the rounds on social media, there is an important message from Dr Swaminathan: “Countries like the UK that have had better vaccination coverage are hoping that the cases of hospitalisation and deaths will not rise. But this is not a given. Only a few countries are managing to keep the virus under good control. There are still nearly 10,000 deaths each day globally.”

Central to the current phase is the delta variant. “It is so transmissible that it requires even greater vigil to ensure it stays under control. The moment, mobility restrictions are lifted, economies open up and social mixing increases, cases will rise. This process is aided by laxity in abiding by the safety measures such as masking and maintaining physical distancing.”

Therefore, the key focus, she maintains, needs to be on testing and surveillance because “the moment there is an uptick, restrictions or targeted lockdowns have to be imposed. These are all important for India at the moment as there are signs of plateauing in the number of new cases each day and in the vaccination rate (the new cases are down from a frightening 400,000 new cases a day to around 42,000 today and the rate of vaccination at around 4 million doses a day). In fact, some experts have also raised concerns around overcoming vaccine shortages, which is hampering the vaccination process. For instance, the Mumbai Miunicipal Corporation’s vaccination centres have remained closed since Friday, July 9th and are to reopen on Monday, July 12th.

India, the doctor reminds, being such a huge country (with its sub-national patterns), there could be an uptick in some pockets and it could reverse a broader declining trend.” For instance, the caseload trends in Kerala and Maharashtra that are seeing a major share of the current caseload.

Cannot Risk Vaccine-resistant Variant

The mantra in terms of priorities are also quite clear. She says, “we need to continue to invest in our healthcare system, and keep up the surveillance, cluster investigations and on building the healthcare cadre needed for an ever-expanding vaccination coverage.” Emphasising that “the time to act is now because we do not want to be in a situation where we end up with a variant that is resistant to the vaccines. That would mean starting the process all over again with a new virus. Fortunately, all the vaccines are still working well against severe disease caused by the virus, including the variants, but this may not last.”

On Covaxin

As for covaxin, she says, “the Phase-3 trial data looks good with protection against the variants too. Now, once the complete documentation is submitted by the company to the WHO, an independent committee will evaluate (its listing for emergency use) and look at not just efficacy and safety but also aspects relating to manufacturing and quality.” This process, she says, should in all typically take between four to six weeks from the time the complete documentation is done, and that part of submission by the company, seems to be currently on at the moment.”

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