Disturbing news is coming from the United Kingdom about a new strain of the coronavirus surfacing there; in fact even in South Africa. Considered to be 70% more contagious than the virus that the world has been dealing with for almost a year now, the new strain spreads much faster than earlier. The silver lining is that perhaps it is not deadlier, although it won’t be before two weeks that its exact nature will be understood. The Boris Johnson government is not taking any chances and has imposed major curbs and restrictions, with Britons being asked to spend Christmas at home. From whatever reports are available it is apparent that the new strain has nearly two-dozen mutations and that some of these mutations have taken place on the protein spikes, which Covid-19 uses to attach itself to human cells and infect them. The vaccines that are being developed at present are designed to target these protein spikes. Scientists say that while the emergence of the new strain is a cause for worry but there is no proof yet that the vaccines will not be effective in targeting the mutated protein spikes of this new strain of the virus. It is expected that all vaccine developers, including those in India will test their vaccines on this new strain of Covid-19.
Amid this, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan is right in saying that there is no reason to panic—especially in India where the number of cases is decreasing and the death rate is the lowest in the world at 1.45%. In fact, the current active caseload of a little over 3 lakh is only 3.02% of the total number of cases in the country since January. Even the virulence of Covid-19 appears to have reduced in India, with the majority of active cases being cured with home quarantine. It is primarily those with co-morbidities who are requiring hospitalisation. Even then, let’s not forget that nearly 1.5 lakh deaths have already taken place and treatment of Covid can be financially debilitating for most households when hospitalisation is required. So, while not panicking, let us also not let our guard down and continue to practice social distancing measures. Also, we cannot be certain yet if the infection is petering out in India or if it will come in waves like the way it has been in many parts of the world. It may take a few weeks or months before we can be certain if India has seen the end of the virus.
While India, along with several countries, stops aircraft originating from the UK, it must be admitted that the emergence of the new strain has introduced an element of uncertainty to the whole immunisation programme being chalked out across the world. Hence, perhaps some attention can be given to the therapy route as well to reduce the fatality rate even further. After 9-10 months of tackling the virus, medical practitioners in India are now more confident of handling it than they were in the beginning. They have figured out the right mix of drugs, most of them locally made, needed to ensure that patients are cured. As has been pointed out by experts, HIV/AIDS was controlled not by a vaccine, but through treatment, which reduced the fatality rate. And that is what seems to be happening in India with the coronavirus—a mix of prescription drugs is bringing down the fatality rate with each passing day. Sometimes the cure is happening inside a couple of weeks. There is also a strong possibility of the country moving towards herd immunity, and in the long run, it may be the therapy route that will prove to be more effective than vaccines, especially if the virus continues to mutate rapidly. Also, Indian traditional medicines should not be overlooked in the treatment of patients. Let’s not forget that the Chinese, the originators of the virus, are promoting the use of their traditional medicines for treating coronavirus patients. Chinese President Xi Jinping said as much recently. And India has a strong foundation when it comes to traditional medicines.
In short, we should not panic and even if the new strain reaches our shores, lockdown is not the answer to tackling the virus. We cannot kill the country’s economy because of a virus which we have started to understand. And while pursuing the vaccine route, we should give equal importance to the therapy route.