The detection of four cases of South African and one of Brazilian variants of SARS-CoV-2 in India and the data that came out of the third national Sero Survey conducted in December and January are a reminder that India cannot afford to let the guard down against the pandemic.
The arrival of the latest South African variant indicates that India has, at present, all the three variants: B.1.1.7 which was first found in the UK; B.1.351, which is now spreading in South Africa; and P.1, discovered in Brazil.
Experts and scientists fear that all three have a tendency to spread faster than the original one. And the worst fear is that since they mutate, they could survive the vaccine, which the world has got after a wait for almost a year, and which is thought to be the normaliser of human life on earth. Director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium, the country’s genetic surveillance programme, Sharon Peacock, is on record saying vaccines were so far effective against the variants in the United Kingdom, but “mutations could potentially undermine the shots”. The British variant was likely “to sweep the world, in all probability”, she has said.
The results of the Sero Survey conducted by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) offers little reason to be complacent. As per the data, 21.5 per cent Indians have developed antibodies to the virus, indicating that the number of people exposed to the pandemic is not small. True, the number of new daily caseload is coming down sharply and so is the case with the number of deaths. Maharashtra and Kerala account for most of the new cases and deaths. However, a disturbing piece of information coming out of the survey is that Kerala, which has half the national exposure to the pandemic, records the highest number of new case every day. There can be safer explanations but the worst one points to the lack of testing or reporting, especially in the rural areas in many states. The reports of fudged testing from Bihar do not inspire confidence about the testing data.
India’s Covid-19 vaccination programme makes steady progress and as per the latest reports, 68.3 per cent of all healthcare workers and 28.2 per cent of all frontline workers have been administered the vaccine. Of the healthcare workers, 37.6 per cent got the second dose, too. While the feat is commendable, the government should stop patting on its back talking of the distance covered; it should take a realistic assessment of the enormousness of the task on hand instead. The vast majority of Indians are still vulnerable to the pandemic’s attack and the new variants are on the door, knocking. We are yet to start the programme for the 50 years plus category, the next most vulnerable group. The government must explore every avenue to speed up the programme. And at the same time, it must reinvigorate the awareness programme on Covid-appropriate behaviour — wearing of masks, use of sanitiser and social distancing — and advise caution on social gatherings, especially political and religious. No amount of caution is excessive while fighting a pandemic.