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Mutant strains, elections and carelessness could have led to Covid surge: Scientists

Written by eveningindia

Scientists now say that a complex interplay of mutant strains, a hugely susceptible population made more vulnerable by elections and other public events and the lowering of guard could have led to the current situation.

According to news agency PTI, virologists Shahid Jameel and T Jacob John are certain that not following Covid-19 safety protocol and a sluggish vaccination drive could be to blame.

Jameel said that the interplay of mutants and vaccines over the next couple of months will decide the future of Covid in India and the world.

“The intensity of the surge also suggests that there were a huge number of susceptible people after the first wave,” said Jameel, who is the director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University.

The fact that people lowered the guard and didn’t follow Covid protocols after the first wave was over is “certainly one valid explanation” for the surge, he said.

The Centre has warned that the next four weeks are critical and people’s participation in curbing the second wave of the contagion is pivotal, without giving any clear explanation on why this is happening.

“Everything opening up to pre-Covid levels and behaviour that was no longer risk-averse exposed the susceptible population in a big way. A new factor is emerging mutants — both imported and homegrown,” John agreed.

John, professor of virology at Tamil Nadu’s Christian Medical College (CMC), said: “Lowering of the guard was led by the central government and followed by all political parties, all religious groups, and the public at large. Schools and colleges were opened without vaccinating all staff. This explains partly the second wave.” 

“Wherever infection was rising, stricter imposition of discipline should have been taken but with the elections ahead, no leader wanted that. Elections during pandemic had to be carefully planned,” the renowned virologist said.

Variants in India

The scientist also agreed that variants are the other reason for the second wave.

“The two factors came together and we were leaderless in response at the critical time. The speed of spread in the second wave is twice as fast as in the first wave. Partly due to variants and partly lowering of the guard,” John explained. 

Referring to a health ministry briefing on 24 March, Jameel noted that the UK variants now show up in about 80% of cases from Punjab. 

“A new double mutant has emerged in India and is reported in 15-20% of cases analysed from Maharashtra. If this percentage goes up further, it would be a clear indication of its role in the Maharashtra surge,” said the virologist.

In India, variants first identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been found.

In late March, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced that a new variant had been identified in samples of saliva taken from people in Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab. 

The genome sequencing carried out by Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), a consortium of 10 labs in India, identified two important mutations in the variant dubbed as “double mutant”. 

Explaining that the UK variant is known to be about 50% more infectious, Jameel said one of the two mutations in the double mutant was also found in California, US, where it was associated with increased transmission. 

On vaccination drive

According to John, the government started the drive too late and no outcome goal of vaccination was defined. 

“India started slow vaccine rollout in January third week, but it was first a token reward to healthcare workers who were vaccinated even when there was no need — and we wasted a lot of vaccines,” he said. 

“Was advance purchase order given to vaccine companies to get production accelerated during last year itself before approvals were obtained?” John asked. 

Jameel said there was “poor communication” by officials to people who were vaccinated on how they must continue with precautions like masks and social distancing. 

Describing India’s Covid-19 situation as “curious”, Jameel said the country was on a falling curve of daily infections when vaccinations started in mid-January. 

“For various reasons, those eligible, including healthcare and frontline workers, were hesitant to get vaccines. Those above 60 also did not show enough eagerness even though cases had started going up by early March. 

“Now we are on a very fast rising curve with only 0.7 per cent Indians having received both doses and only about 5 per cent having received one dose. That is too low to make an impact,” he added. 

He noted that there was no way to predict that younger people would be affected in this surge. 

“Make everyone above 18 eligible for vaccination in states experiencing the surge, while staying with the 45 plus eligibility in states not experiencing the surge. Vaccinations have to be balanced against the supply of vaccines,” Jameel said. 

Noting that supply may be an issue, Jameel said India has the capacity to inoculate with 10 million doses of Covishield vaccine per month and three million Covaxin doses per month. 

“Supply can also be boosted by giving emergency use approval to Johnson & Johnson vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Both of these have received approvals in other countries and have manufacturing partners in India,” he added.

In a recent study, scientists, including those from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, predicted that the ongoing second-wave could peak by mid-April, following which the infections may see a steep decline by the end of May.

Cases today

As many as 1,52,879 more people tested positive for Covid-19 across the country in the last 24 hours, taking the cumulative caseload to, the Union home ministry said on Sunday morning.

This is the biggest jump in new infections India has seen since the outbreak of the virus. The country has been clocking in over one lakh cases for five days now as the second wave rages.

In addition to this, 839 more people succumbed to the disease in the last 24 hours. The death toll in the country now stands at 1,69,275.

This is the biggest jump in daily fatalities India has seen in nearly six months.

A total of 90,584 have recuperated from the disease, taking the total number of recoveries to 1,20,81,443.

As a result, there are 11,08,087 active cases in the country currently. The country has breached the 11-lakh mark once again. It had crossed the 10-lakh count only on Saturday, making this the fastest addition of one-lakh active cases.

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