Speed up Covid-19 vaccination: Mutant Coronaviruses in Maharashtra already pose a threat

By: |
February 20, 2021 5:45 AM

Given lockdowns can only be a temporary measure, the state government and the Centre need to double down on the non-pharmacological interventions, such as distancing, proper use of masks and hand hygiene.

Given lockdowns can only be a temporary measure, the state government and the Centre need to double down on the non-pharmacological interventions, such as distancing, proper use of masks and hand hygiene.Given lockdowns can only be a temporary measure, the state government and the Centre need to double down on the non-pharmacological interventions, such as distancing, proper use of masks and hand hygiene.

The detection of two mutated forms of SARS CoV-2—E484k (also called the South African variant) and N440k—from patient samples in Amravati and Akola in Maharashtra draws a cloud over India’s Covid-19-combat efforts. Even though a detailed analysis of of the mutations’ implications is still awaited, experts point to the fact that both mutations cause changes to the virus’s spike protein, allowing the virus to invade cells more easily as antibodies fail to retard its activity inside the body.

This could confer it increased transmissibility, which, in turn, could explain the unusual spurt in cases reported in the districts; indeed, the E484k variant has been named as a factor behind the drastic rise in cases in Brazil—even in cities that had reached the estimated herd immunity threshold for the virus as far back as June 2020. While the National Institute of Virology, Pune, is studying prevalence in the districts they were detected in, the decision to enforce a 10-day lockdown in Yavatmal and a weekend lockdown in Amravati—despite the attendant pain for certain sections of the economy—seems pragmatic; if it can help slow the spread, not only will it mean a less steeper burden on healthcare facilities, it will also give the authorities the time to mount efforts to prevent spread to other geographies.

Given lockdowns can only be a temporary measure, the state government and the Centre need to double down on the non-pharmacological interventions, such as distancing, proper use of masks and hand hygiene. Mumbai has the rise in cases hold steady over the past few days; this has come two weeks after the decision to restart local train services, and broadly mirrors the October 2020 prediction of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research on rise in cases following the resumption of local train services. Marshals on trains and steep fines notwithstanding, between February 2 and 14, over 4,500 passengers have been fined by the municipal and railway authorities for not wearing masks on the train. It isn’t hard to imagine the disaster that could result if the mutant viruses were to reach the city or be already present.

That said, the Centre needs to significantly step up vaccination efforts—India had managed to administer only 1.02 crore doses of vaccines by Friday, and, as per an analysis by Our World in Data, the country’s rolling 7-day average (on Thursday) of number of people administered the vaccine per 100 population stood at 0.03 versus the US’s 0.5, the UK’s 0.6 and Israel’s impressive 1.45.

Evidence from Israel shows that wide vaccination cover has helped slow down transmission. While it is not clear whether the vaccines approved for use in India can be effective against the mutants, the hope is that the T-cell immunity induced by the vaccines can help stave off Covid-19 meaningfully even neutralising antibodies don’t succeed. At the very least, they can help lessen the severity of the disease in many. So, India only stands to lose if vaccination efforts are not sped up substantially.

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