India may not see a second COVID-19 wave: Expert

By Ahmad Adil

NEW DELHI (AA) – India may not see a second wave of coronavirus cases although there may be small increases in new infections, according to India's leading virologist T. Jacob John.

India's graph peaked on Sept. 16 and since then, the decline has been "steady," John told Anadolu Agency in an interview, adding: "My judgment is that we will not have a second wave as such but here and there small increases may occur […] Such increases may affect rural areas more than urban."

After days of consistent decline, several states are seeing an increase in infections, triggering concern.

Asked about the mutant strains N440K and E484Q detected in the western state of Maharashtra, John said variants had higher transmission rates and spread quickly.

"Mutant variants (strain is too strong a term) have transmission advantage. So, when there was a proportion of uninfected people, say 40%, and the original virus would have spread slowly, the mutant may infect faster and spread more rapidly hitting more people in a short time," he said. "This, according to my reading, is what is happening."

John believes the current vaccine is likely to be effective against variants, "partly because earlier infection with the then-prevalent virus seems to be protective against new mutant variants."

"Until proven otherwise, we assume that the mutation has not changed antigenic make up and the current vaccines should be effective," he said.

India's Health Ministry said there is no relation between the recent surge in cases in Maharashtra and other states where the virus's variants have been detected.

John cited several reasons why India's vaccination drive has not gone as expected.

"Bad design, no public education, no openness about adverse reactions, no clarity on choice between two vaccines, vaccines not yet licensed but under restricted emergency use — hence apprehension among people," he said.

Saying the government must vaccinate at least 30% of the population in February and March to affect infection numbers, he said the vaccination program should be given more attention.

The government had announced the second phase of vaccinations would begin March 1.

John underlined that it would be best to "selectively vaccinate those who were not known to be infected in the past" with the disease, adding that vaccinating another 30% in April-May "will be ideal."

"Since we started quite late, such speed is essential, and possible […] We can do it if the Government sought cooperation from all quarters and not try to go alone," he said.

"My suggestions are first, prevent severe disease and deaths, for which elderly and those with comorbidities have to be vaccinated, and second, all school/college staff so that you can boldly reopen educational institutions," he said. "Third all transport workers, buses, trucks, police, sanitary staff as one group. Fourth, open to all who want, including adolescents."

He also noted that India could be close to achieving herd immunity.

"There is a concept of 'herd immunity threshold' which is the herd immunity level to end the epidemic […] That is about 60-70%," he explained. "Since Jan. 28, India has not crossed 18,000 new infections per day. That means we are almost there, if not already there."