Large parts of Europe are in a second lockdown as a new wave of infection sweeps through the continent. The new variant of COVID 19 first detected in November has driven a spike in cases in the UK. Its spread has concerned many European countries that have already imposed full national lockdowns to tackle a marked rise in infections during winter.
Informing that 22 European nations now have cases of the variant, World Health Organization (WHO)'s Europe director, Hans Kluge has called upon European countries to do more to curb the new variant of coronavirus that was first detected in the UK. Tougher measures are needed to 'flatten the steep vertical line' of rising cases in some countries, he has stated calling this 'an alarming situation'.
Other countries outside Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia have also reported cases of the variant while cases in the US are smashing new records. But overall numbers in India are falling for reasons not yet fully clear.
What is the way forward, given the cost of lockdowns? What approaches globally are good examples of how to best handle this pandemic, especially for a country like India?
Other countries outside Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia have also reported cases of the variant while cases in the US are smashing new records. But overall numbers in India are falling for reasons not yet fully clear.Prof Sunetra Gupta, in an interview to Prabha Raghavan of The Indian Express, said: "Sweden is obviously a good example as it is not going into full lockdown, but trying at the same time to institute measures with the idea of protecting the vulnerable. My mother is in Kolkata. She and her sister are self isolating as best they can. Though these options are available to middle class families, they certainly aren't in the slums. But then, look at slums like Dharavi; the virus has passed through it, lots of people got infected but the deaths were low, probably because, among the infected, most people were young. I think there is a possibility that in India the older generation is more protected because they have some immunity through regular exposure to young people. Shutting down the economy is, almost everywhere, going to cause more harm, and going to disproportionately harm the poor and the young."
How far is India from achieving herd immunity? "Many pockets in India have already clearly achieved herd immunity, because infection levels are falling naturally. So, we go back to the question; what do serological studies indicate about exposure?," shares Gupta. She observes that the lesson to be learned from these studies is that you can't tell what proportion of the population has been exposed and when.
In India, there are studies where you get 60 to 70% antibodies in particular localities. Those are areas where people have been recently exposed and it has overshot the level required (for) herd immunity. "Furthermore, not only do antibodies decay, another thing we know is that not everybody makes antibodies," reveals Gupta. "I suspect in India, because of continuous exposure to COVID19, people have more residual immunity from cross immunity (which means immunity developed from another COVID would help protect against the new one) In our cistern example, the tank is already half full," says Gupta. She adds, "The only thing that tells you what's going on is when infection and deaths start to come down. India is a very big country, it will happen region to region, but it will happen. I haven't looked at all the data carefully, but I imagine by now, most parts of Maharashtra must be developing it. But then, there will be other areas (where immunity has not progressed that much)."
Data suggests that around 10% of deaths in India are of those aged between 26 and 44. Therefore which age groups should be allowed to live their lives normally, and with what caveats? "The data needs to be looked at carefully and gives an age link on who should go back to work, data from the UK and many other nations suggest people in the 26 to 44 age bracket have very low risk. In the UK, Prof Carl Heneghan of Oxford University did an analysis of deaths. Even elderly people who have died were with some form of comorbidity. The likelihood of dying, if one is fit and healthy, is quite low, even among the elderly. But it's going to vary from region to region," says Gupta.
There are various ways for younger ones to protect themselves, like reducing exposure, even among the younger ones. Denmark and Norway both have managed to control the virus and have had fewer deaths. The new COVID variant will increase stress on global economy and widen inequality. Thus, policymakers need to take note of the WHO warning and act boldly to tackle anticipated risk.