By Dr Gyan Pathak
The new outbreak of COVID-19 in China threatens the rest of the world. Mathematical models predict a million or more deaths by early 2023, within 90 days from now. Epidemiologists estimate that 60 percent of China’s population and 10 percent of the world’s population are likely to be infected. This new crisis could shake the world, and India cannot escape it either, as we already experienced three years ago after the outbreak of Wuhan. A sudden wave of new infections has also been noticed in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and the US.
What India can do now is not repeat the mistakes made by leaders early in the outbreak and beyond. Every point of entry into India must be strictly controlled. Focusing on the new infection and related health concerns and a strategy to address them must be put in place quickly, and also a comprehensive strategy to address all aspects of the crisis as what is happening now in China is most likely to disrupt global supply chain, which several Indian industries depend on for production, including but not limited to those related to health.
India has to take into account the very fast spread of the new variant of Omicron, which has started to flood Beijing and could soon affect the rest of China. It lasted just 10 days after the easing of restrictions on Dec. 7. It has led to panic buying of food, cold preventative gear, medicines and other health-related items. No one knows exactly what is happening there as the government there has stopped reporting full daily infection data and deactivated the COVID-19 tracking app.
Though the information coming out of China indicates the challenges facing India. About 90 percent of people have already received the double dose of vaccines against the coronavirus, while about 50 percent have received the booster third dose. Of the over-60s, 69 percent received the booster injections. Despite this, the spread of the new infection could not be controlled. Health facilities, cemeteries and crematoriums are overwhelmed. There are also opportunities for the emergence of new variants. India needs to be alert on the vaccine front and the deadly new Omicron variant evading immunity.
In India, the Union Ministry of Health has already issued warnings, advisories and instructions to all states and UTs. The center’s genome sequencing notice to states and UTs has already been sent. Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan has said such exercise will enable timely detection of newer variants, if any, circulating in the country and facilitate the taking of required public health action.
Far India, with its focus on the five-pronged strategy of test-track-treat-vaccination and adherence to Covid-appropriate behavior, has been able to limit transmission of the coronavirus, which is now around 1,200 cases per week. The country has reported 129 new cases of infection in the past 24 hours, with one death. Significant relaxations have been made, including wearing masks has not become mandatory.
In fact, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya today held a high-level meeting with top officials and experts to outline the strategy to avoid another spike in COVID-19 infection. Everyone in the assembly wore masks, although it is not required by government protocol.
The six points have been identified, which also include a strategy for blocking inbound cases at the country’s international and domestic airports and other entry points; establishing guidelines for passengers traveling from abroad and consultation with experts on new variants.
The chair of the COVID-19 working group Dr. NK Arora has said: “It is important that we closely monitor the Chinese situation. But I would say there is nothing to panic. There’s no need to worry too much. The system is very vigilant, we have to be very vigilant.”
Meanwhile, the Union Health Minister has written a letter to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi asking him to ensure that COVID rules are adhered to in his Bharat Jodo Yatra or else he has to postpone further parts of the Yatra “in the interest of the nation”. It is unfortunate, however, that the concern for “national interest” has been too slow in more important strategies to deal with the threat.
For example, only a network of just over 50 laboratories across the country has been sequenced under INSACOG. The latest advisories to states and UTs for increasing sequencing have not come with the increase in labs. Second, only a limited number of samples are sent for sequencing. International passengers are tested randomly and the detection of positive cases among them is about 2 percent. Samples are collected from designated sentinels and community clusters or outbreaks. These laboratories also test viral RNA in sewage. It is clear that we now need to significantly increase the number of laboratories.
As far as heightened surveillance is concerned, there has been no change to the protocol for international arrivals so far. India is still under the older protocol, which removed the need for a negative RT-PCR or full vaccination certificate last month. China cannot handle such a slow decision like a rapid spread of the virus, as there is nothing to prevent new infections from entering the country despite a 14-day nightmare in neighboring China.
Indians and India should note that the current wave of infections is related to Omicron subvariant BF.7, a nomenclature assigned to BA.18.104.22.168, which has already been detected by the INSACOG network, as people in know of the case has reportedly said but has yet to be officially confirmed.
Former AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria has said that almost three years after the pandemic, we are in a situation where there is high natural infection and vaccine coverage is also high. India may not see a similar situation to China, he said.
But let it be, India cannot afford any laxity in preparedness and should not delay the disease. COVID appropriate behavior needs to be reintroduced before we get into the new nightmare that could prove catastrophic. (IPA service)
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