An empty street in Tripura during nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus in India

New Delhi: Informing that the nationwide lockdown will no longer help India in its fight against COVID-19, country’s leading virologist Shahid Jameel believes that community-driven containment, isolation and quarantine strategies should be adopted properly to put a brake on the pandemic in the country.

He also said that the country has already reached the stage of community transmission long time back, albeit it’s not been admitted by the authorities in the health department.

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Advocating for the need to deploy both antibody tests and confirmatory PCR tests, Jameel, a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology awardee, also said that testing should be carried out vigorously to identify coronavirus hotspots and isolate those areas.

Commenting on India’s current testing rate of 1,744 tests per million populations, the leading virologist said that the number is one of the lowest in the world.

He also stressed on the need of deploying antibody tests and confirmatory PCR tests, which will indicate about the pockets of ongoing infection and past (recovered) infection.

He emphasized on the need that testing has to be dynamic to continuously monitor red, orange and green zones and change these based on that data.

“We reached community transmission a long time ago. It’s just that the health authorities are not admitting it. Even ICMR’s own study of SARI (severe acute respiratory illness) showed that about 40 per cent of those who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 did not have any history of overseas travel or contact to a known case. If this is not community transmission, then what is?” he said.

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Jameel also said that instead of community-driven local lockdowns, isolations and quarantines have to come into play to control the virus.

With the expertise in the fields of molecular biology, infectious diseases, and biotechnology, Jameel is the CEO of Wellcome Trust/Department of Biotechnology’s India Alliance and is best known for extensive research in Hepatitis E virus and HIV.

He said if the population level mortality is 0.5 per cent that would mean 40 lakh deaths. “Are we prepared to pay this price for herd immunity in the short term? Clearly not,” he said.

He said it is unlikely that a vaccine would be available by the end of the year. “Even then, we don’t know yet how long it would give protection – weeks, months, one year, a few years? I don’t think we will return to pre-coronavirus days for at least the next 3-5 years. This is also a chance to evaluate if we want to return to those unsustainable, environment-damaging ways. COVID-19 is a timely warning to reform our way of living,” he said. Jameel said it is hard to predict but plausible that COVID-19 would return in second or third wave.

He also believes said COVID-19 will be controlled through herd immunity, which is acquired in two ways – when a sufficient fraction of the population gets infected and recovers, and with vaccination.

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Herd immunity is reached when the majority of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease, either because they have become infected and recovered, or through vaccination. When that happens, the disease is less likely to spread to people who aren’t immune, because there just aren’t enough infectious carriers.

“India has 1.38 billion people, a population density of about 400/sq km and a healthcare system ranked at 143 in the world. If we allow 60 per cent people to get infected quickly in the hopes of herd immunity, that would mean 830 million infections,” Jameel said.

“If 15 per cent need hospitalization that means about 125 million isolation beds (we have 0.3 million). If five per cent need oxygen and ventilatory support, this amounts to about 42 million oxygen support and ICU beds; we have 0.1 million oxygen support beds and 34,000 ICU beds. This would overwhelm the healthcare system causing mayhem,” he said.

On the possible scientific evidence linking deforestation, rapid urbanisation, climate change with pandemics like COVID-19, he said zoonotic viruses — those that jump from animals to humans — happen so when wild animal-human contacts increase.

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“Deforestation destroys animal habitats bringing them closer to humans. When you cut forests, bats come to roost on trees closer to human habitations. Their viruses in secretions/stool get transmitted to domestic animals and on to humans. This happened clearly with Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia in 1997-98 from fruit bats to pigs to humans,” he said.

“COVID-19 possibly arose in wet animal markets due to dietary habits that bring all kinds of live and dead wild animals in close contact with humans,” Jameel added.

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