COVID-19: Enemy is down but not out, cautions CCMB director Rakesh Mishra
If you are finding more people seeming careless and confused about COVID-19, you probably are not alone. Despite experts pointing out repeatedly that masks and social distancing are the only hope at the moment, many, it appears, are willing to let their guard down. The reason, some among them argue, is a clear decline in the viral caseload.
After all, the number of people getting infected each day has declined from over 90,000 new cases a day three months ago to over 18,000 today. The apparent decline in the infection level and rate of transmission seems remarkable when compared to the situation in other countries, especially the UK, which is under its third round of lockdown because of a new variant and the fears in the US over a new variant.
“In India, which has the second biggest reservoir of cases after the US, it is still too early to take comfort. The enemy is down but not out and can bounce back any day,” says Rakesh Kumar Mishra, one who has looked at the virus closely and is the director at the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB), a premier research organization of India focused on the frontier areas of modern biology.
Speaking to Financial Express Online, he says, “mutations and emergence of variants is in the nature of such viruses.” Following the occurrence of a new virus strain in the UK, he says, the Indian government began a major exercise nationwide a few weeks ago. It includes around 10 research institutions, including the CCMB, to genome sequence the virus, which is the only way to understand it better its changing nature. He says, “sequencing is the only way and it is now going to begin as there is a national plan to do sequencing in a coordinated manner wherein data from multiple places is to be compared. This will give an idea of how the virus is evolving and if some new variant is emerging.”
It is a complex operation that not only requires a national coordinated effort but also one where reagents required by the laboratories for sequencing need to be imported especially where the DNA and RNA is converted into a library and fed into a machine. This is to be done over the next six months. At the moment, he says, we are only sequencing the virus strain from the visitors coming from the UK.
“There is no doubt that virus will mutate and present itself, sometimes, in more infectious form. If the proper strategy of curbing the spread is not put in place, the virus will emerge with newer features. Therefore, we ought to have a multi-pronged strategy to suffocating the virus – social vaccine of mask, physical distancing, etc., and other interventions like drugs/vaccines, etc,” Mishra says.
He reminds that “since India is the second-largest reservoir of the virus (number of infected people) after the US so chances of having new variants of the virus are big in India than in any other country because variants keep happening.”
He says, “we also need to back the genomic sequencing with Sero surveys, which explores the part of the population that has been exposed to the virus and has developed the antibodies within the body.” He feels in a few weeks from now, we will all know better if there are already some new kind of variants in India.
But he is also quick to point out that “the risk of a variant is very much there. It will be suicidal if we say the risk is less. As long as several lakh people are infected and the virus is growing, there are risks as this is a playing field for the virus.”
Considering that the risk of a new variant emerging is there and that studies are now on to monitor them, what is needed at the moment is greater caution because the infection rate has not got down to levels that can give us comfort.
One reason why the hospitals are not flooded is that people have also understood the virus better and have got more confident and many do not rush to the hospital in case they have symptoms and opt to isolate themselves and know as long as oxygen levels are fine and symptoms can be treated at home. Also, hospitals are also more enabled now and equipped with more beds. Finally, it is very likely that the proportion of people with asymptomatic cases has also increased.