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  • The Covid war needs more transparency

    Posted On April 11, 2021

    By Karan Thapar

    As the daily increase in Covid cases surges past 145,000, leaving the first spike far behind, there are two issues that aren’t getting the attention they deserve. And what makes matters worse is those who should be speaking to us are either silent or not asked the right questions. Consequently the government is far from forthright whilst independent epidemiologists and virologists are not pressed for answers. In these circumstances, let me see what I can piece together from my research.


    The first concern are the mutant strains that are spreading pretty furiously. There are two I want to focus on. First, Maharashtra has a double mutant. Shahid Jameel, one of our top virologists, says one of the mutations, L452R, is similar to what was earlier found amongst minks in Denmark and, thereafter, in the human population in California. It’s more infectious. The other, E484Q, has similarities to mutations found in South Africa and Brazil and is more resistant to the AstraZeneca vaccine. As he euphemistically puts it, this is “clearly worrisome”.


    How much depends on how far it’s spread. The government says 15-20% of samples genome-sequenced in Maharashtra are of this double mutant variety. However, I’m told by people who know the percentage is closer to 60. And, not surprisingly, Jameel’s hunch is the double mutant is the primary cause of the surge in Maharashtra and it will get a lot worse.


    The other worrying mutant strain is in Punjab. There, 81% of nearly 450 samples genome-sequenced are of the UK variant. Jameel says this shows they’re driving the surge. In fact, he believes it’s reached community levels of spread. And this time it’s not a hunch. It’s the “only logical explanation”.


    So, though Balram Bhargava, the head of the ICMR, insists the mutant strains aren’t driving the second surge there is another credible view. It’s just that we haven’t heard it fully or properly. One more thing: there’s a third mutant in Bangalore – but I know little about it – and none of these strains will be contained within state borders.


    This leads me to the second issue that needs urgent attention: genome sequencing. The government says so far 11,064 samples have been sequenced. That’s either 0.1% of our total cases or 1.0% of the increase since February. But is it sufficient for a population of 1.35 billion? Absolutely no one says it is. The ideal percentage is 5. Britain makes that figure. The US is somewhere between 2 and 3. At 1 we’re 500% below it.


    A recent report in the Ahmedabad Mirror reveals genome sequencing is happening slowly. Of the 646 samples sent by Gujarat to the National Institute of Virology since mid-February the results of only 181 were received by the 31st of March. That’s about a quarter. Doctors on the Maharashtra government’s Covid panel, speaking on NDTV, have reported similar delays. They weren’t at all happy.


    So what’s the explanation for these delays? Jameel, who’s also Chairman of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on genome-sequencing, tells me NCDC labs are neither short-staffed nor, any longer, under-funded. The problem is local health workers. They often send samples unsuitable for sequencing. Consequently the right ones get pushed back.


    This leads to a simple but stark conclusion. Until these issues are resolved and sequencing sharply stepped up we won’t know how far the mutant strains have spread beyond Maharashtra and Punjab. All we’ll have is logical explanations and hunches. I guess we’ll have to live with that for a while but, at least, let the government be more informative. This is not a moment to be economical with the truth.


    Why? Because only the grim truth will make us return to masks and social distancing. We need to be shaken out of our present complacency. Two more things would help. First, an immediate curb on election rallies and shahi snans. Second, sack health ministers like Himanta Biswa Sarma who claim “there’s no need to wear masks in Assam.”

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