Dr Priya Abraham was barely two months into her job as the director of the National Institute of Virology, Pune, when her lab stumbled upon a specimen that would later be confirmed as the first Covid positive case in India. Among the Indian Council of Medical Research’s 27 institutes, the NIV’s mandate is to be a watchdog against viral infections. Its microbial containment facility in Pune has been working with the actual living virus of the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant. In an exclusive interview, Abraham tells THE WEEK about the “trial by fire” at the NIV, the current “relatively quieter” period, the changing behaviour of the virus and why it is too early to bring down one’s guard. Excerpts:
What is your current assessment of the Covid-19 situation?
The virus has not gone away. It is very much in our midst and it is equally highly infectious and transmissible even now. But we need to prevent its fast spread because the quick transmission will encourage the creation of mutations. We are slowly upping the percentage of people who are completely vaccinated. A good number of people are adhering to social measures required to curtail the spread. So we are seeing a lower number of cases across the country, except in some states. Vaccines are extremely effective in preventing serious disease and deaths due to the virus, including the Delta variant, but it is a fact that they are not able to give more than 90 per cent protection against picking up the infection. Hence, following Covid appropriate behaviour is still recommended.
How long can the vaccines protect us?
At least for six months. The big manufacturers are looking at studies to see when we can give boosters. In high-income countries, the delivery of boosters is happening because of the wide availability of vaccines and shots. So the mRNA vaccine manufacturers have begun to recommend boosters for individuals who are immunosuppressed, more vulnerable to developing serious forms of disease and whose immunity is sub-optimal. As of now, we know that a very small proportion of the world has got vaccinated. So the data is still evolving for us to know exactly how long a vaccine can protect us. More real-world data is awaited, but we know approximate six-month protection is definitely there.
Are the recommendations for booster shots propaganda by vaccine companies?
It may be. I know of those who have taken the fourth dose against Covid-19 in a rich country within this year. Isn’t that insane? There is no formal recommendation in this regard yet. Also, I believe we must speak up against vaccine inequity in the world with some nations vaccinating almost their entire populations while others barely manage to have 5 per cent vaccinated. We have vaccinated only a little over 25 per cent of our population till now.
There have been reports that a fourth wave is hitting the US. Should we worry, too?
To me, a wave is a significant surge in cases—a peak that comes in a particular geographic region. We have clearly experienced two waves that were fairly significant across the country. But, as a nation, we haven’t gotten our third wave yet because we haven’t seen that kind of unprecedented or notable surge in cases after the peak of the second wave. We might invite it because of our lackadaisical behaviour during the approaching festive months and elections in some states, and also because of our inability to penetrate pockets with sufficient vaccination. There is Diwali, Dussehra, Christmas, New Year and then the elections early next year. If we all adhere to public health and social measures, then any wave will not be significant. But if not, then it will be upon us sooner than we think. In some parts of the US, there has been vaccine hesitancy and scant regard for masking. So, yes, a fourth wave is not completely impossible in such situations and smaller waves thereafter, too.
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