New Delhi: The nationwide lockdown will no longer help India in its fight against COVID-19, and in its place community-driven containment, isolation and quarantine strategies have to be brought into play, leading virologist Shahid Jameel said.
The recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology also stressed that testing should be carried out vigorously to identify coronavirus hotspots and isolate those areas. "Our current testing rate at 1,744 tests per million population is one of the lowest in the world. We should deploy both antibody tests and confirmatory PCR tests. This will tell us about pockets of ongoing infection and past (recovered) infection. This will provide data to open up gradually and let economic activity resume," Jameel told PTI in an interview.
He stressed that testing has to be dynamic to continuously monitor red, orange and green zones and change these based on that data. About community transmission of COVID-19 in India, Jameel said the country reached that stage long ago. "We reached community transmission a long time ago. It's just that the health authorities are not admitting it. Even ICMR's own study of SARI (severe acute respiratory illness) showed that about 40 per cent of those who tested positive for SARSCoV-2 did not have any history of overseas travel or contact to a known case. If this is not community transmission, then what is?" he posed.
Lockdown bought India time in its fight against coronavirus, but continuing it is unlikely to yield any further dividend, Jameel said. "Instead, community-driven local lockdowns, isolations and quarantines have to come into play. Building trust is most important so that people follow rules. A public health problem cannot be dealt with as a law-and-order problem." The nationwide lockdown, initially imposed from March 25 to April 14, has been extended thrice and will continue at least till May 31.
The virus has claimed 3,720 lives and infected over 1.25 lakh people in the country so far. Jameel has expertise in the fields of molecular biology, infectious diseases, and biotechnology. He is the CEO of Wellcome Trust/Department of Biotechnology's India Alliance and is best known for extensive research in Hepatitis E virus and HIV.
He said COVID-19 will eventually be controlled through herd immunity, which is acquired in two ways - when a sufficient fraction of the population gets infected and recovers, and with vaccination. "It is estimated that for SARS-CoV-2 at least 60 per cent of the population would have to be infected and recovered, or vaccinated. This will happen over the course of the next few years," Jameel said.
Herd immunity is reached when the majority of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease, either because they have become infected and recovered, or through vaccination. When that happens, the disease is less likely to spread to people who aren't immune, because there just aren't enough infectious carriers. "India has 1.38 billion people, a population density of about 400/sq km and a healthcare system ranked at 143 in the world. If we allow 60 per cent people to get infected quickly in the hopes of herd immunity, that would mean 830 million infections," Jameel said.
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