Strain in Covid-19 saga: What can India do
By Dr Sambit Dash
While the year 2020 was ending on a positive note regarding vaccine for Covid-19, a spanner has been thrown with the news of the mutated version of the virus. With reports from the UK of new variant of SARS-Cov-2, its higher spreading ability and mutations in the protein part of the virus that attaches to human cells to enter, a new fear has set in. Coupled with the fact that not much is known about this variant with regard to which population it affects more, whether the vaccines so painstakingly developed will be able to counter it, what the clinical outcome of infection with it will be, a lot of uncertainty has set in in an already fatigued world. But the recourse lies in the fundamentals of good science, good communication and good habits.
First things first. Mutations occurring in a virus is a common phenomenon. In the past year since the coronavirus has been around, it has been mutating, that is, the genetic component has been undergoing spontaneous changes. There have been about one or two mutations occurring per month. But what has been observed since November is that the virus has suddenly acquired 17 mutations in a very short span of time. Some of the mutations are in the gene that has the message that helps make the spike proteins (the tentacles in a coronavirus picture are familiar to everyone by now) that latches on to human cells and enters the body. This new variant has taken the UK into its fold, and cases have skyrocketed prompting strictest of lockdown measures in major parts of that country. It must be pointed out that it is remarkable that in the UK, nearly 10 per cent of all Covid positive samples undergo genetic sequencing, perhaps the most important reason why they have been tracking the mutations, the variants so closely. While all these information is known, a lot about the new variant is unknown.
Initial reports suggest the new variant is having 70 per cent more ability to transmit. There are concerns that it affects, unlike its older cousin, more children, which would be a scary proposition to young parents worldwide. There is a gloom about the scenario where the vaccines that target spike proteins would be rendered ineffective by these mutations. Laboratories are at work to answer many of these questions and facts will unravel in time to come. But until then, basing the response on fundamentals is essential for countries like India. Good and robust science is what India must rely on. In Delhi, when five passengers in a flight from the UK tested positive for Covid, their samples were sent to Pune for sequencing. It is baffling why such sequencing could not be done in the national capital. Asking questions like how much of genetic sequencing of SARS-Cov-2 is done in India would be futile at this point.
Faster and accurate data in these circumstances are both required for public health authorities to be well-informed and to take action as well as for people who have been subjected to the tests to be assured. Various countries have stopped flights from the UK, including India, and which is a wise move to make. The contact tracing of passengers who have arrived from the UK and have tested positive is on and must be done diligently. Any laxity on that front can prove costly. Whether the new variant blows up cases or like a few of such scares in the earlier days of the pandemic turns out thankfully to be nothing serious, it is a fact that the variant, that is existing, is potent to find hosts and cause the damage. In that scenario, whichever be the variant, proper masking, hand washing, physical distancing, avoidance of closed spaces and large crowds are tools that would continue to protect an individual.
The scare of the new variant is an opportunity for political leadership, healthcare leaders and community leaders to make renewed communication about these safety measures. With vaccine for India still a few weeks away, and the New Year festivities round the corner, it would only be prudent to engage in fresh messaging about precautionary measures. Given the free-for-all situation that one encounters on venturing out of home, or watching election rallies, little is expected of the political leadership. Who can then fill the gap remains to be seen.
While the whole mutation saga adds to the uncertainty that has been going on for a year now, at this point one can only closely watch the information about it unfold and preempt actions steeped in well-established fundamentals.
__ The author is Senior Grade Lecturer, Department of Biochemistry, Melaka Manipal Medical College (Manipal Campus). He comments on public policy, healthcare and issues of social interest. He tweets at @sambit_dash