New Delhi, Mar 13 (PTI) With India recording the highest number of daily novel coronavirus cases in 83 days on Saturday, the country could be heading towards a new wave that scientists say can be quelled by vaccinating the maximum number of people and following COVID-appropriate behaviour.
The Union Health Ministry reported 24,882 fresh COVID-19 infections, up from 23,285 the day earlier and in keeping with a graph steadily inching upwards. This is the highest daily rise since December 20 when 26,624 new infections were recorded.
As red flags went up, the jury was out on whether it constituted a new wave of the pandemic. Scientists grappled with the why and how of the surge in cases but were agreed that adherence to COVID-19 protocols and escalating the vaccination drive to cover more people were necessary to control the rising trajectory of the disease.
Anurag Agarwal, director of the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, said scientists at his institute are trying to understand if the rise in cases is due to more-transmissible variants of the virus or due to a lapse in precautionary measures followed by people. Though there is no clarity if a new wave of the pandemic is currently underway, some things are certain.
'COVID appropriate behavior and vaccination remain our best ways to stop the pandemic,' Agarwal told PTI.
There could possibly be a silver line somewhere.
According to Monica Gulati, senior dean and head of faculty of Applied Medical Sciences, Lovely Professional University, India’s rising curve is not very high unlike other countries where new strains have been found, indicating that the prevalent strain is not very infectious.
She also said the current rise in reported coronavirus infections could be due to the spread of new variants as well as the casual attitude of the general public. Gulati explained that the current surge in cases 'is very well separated and shows a less steep rise from the previous ones indicating a change in the causative factor'.
'While in countries where the new strains are found to be more lethal than the original strains, the new wave is much steeper and higher as compared to the previous one. In India, the slope of the rising curve is not very high as yet which may be attributed to a number of factors, including a break in the propagation chain due to high rate of vaccination and low infectivity of the prevalent strain,' Gulati told PTI. Other scientists took a grimmer view of the situation.
The seven-day average of new cases of infection has risen by 67 per cent in India -- from 10,988 cases a day for the week leading to February 11, to 18,371 average daily cases for the week ending on Wednesday, The positivity rate, which is the fraction of coronavirus tests conducted across the country that are positive for infection, has also been steadily increasing over the last month. While it was only 1.6 per cent for the week leading to February 14, currently 2.6 per cent of all tested samples are positive for the coronavirus infection -- a rise by one whole percentage point within a month.
Rakesh Mishra, director of the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), warned that there could be a new wave if the current trends continue and new homegrown variants of the virus may emerge.
'There is a possibility of another wave. Right now this is happening already in a couple of states, including Maharashtra, in a major way. But this is avoidable with exceptional advisory and continuation of COVID appropriate behaviour,' Mishra told PTI.
'Currently the rise in cases is happening in multiple cities, across states, and it doesn't look like a new variant is responsible for all these surges but one common feature in all these places is lack of COVID appropriate behaviour. And if this continues, it may even lead to new variants emerging in India,' he added.
Virologist Upasana Ray concurred that it may be too early to say if a second wave is currently underway but said the trends definitely point to a localised surge. 'Although it may or may not turn out to be a second wave, we should consider it a potential concern and be prepared for the worst,' Ray, a senior scientist with CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, told PTI. 'We hear about new variants. Whether or not any of them is responsible, that part is not established yet. However, keeping an eye on home grown mutants would be important,' she added.
Ray said there is widespread pandemic fatigue, due to which people are no longer following COVID-19 appropriate behavior like masking up, social distancing, and maintaining hygiene as they did earlier.
The need of the hour is to revisit compliance with safety measures at all public places, she said. 'Then comes expediting vaccinations so that the immunity is achieved faster in the population and localised surges could die off due to decreased transmission rate. Also, rigorous screening and isolation are still important for keeping a check,' the virologist added. Till 7 pm Thursday, over 2.6 crore COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered across the country. These included 72,16,759 (72.16 lakh) healthcare workers (HCWs) who have taken the first dose and 40,48,754 (40.48 lakh) HCWs who have taken the second dose, according to the Union Health Ministry.
Given the current rate of vaccination, Agarwal said, it would take a while for the country to build herd immunity, which is when a significant portion of the population builds immunity against the coronavirus and stops its chain of transmission.
The need of the hour, Gulati said, is to dispel fear and scepticism among the general population with regard to vaccination. 'As the vaccines being administered in India have been found to be both safe and effective, people must demonstrate their willingness to get vaccinated, especially the vulnerable groups,' she added.
'Since vaccination is voluntary and available at the rate of Rs 250 per jab, the onus is now on people to voluntarily get vaccinated to break the vicious cycle of infection.' In her view, the current focus should be on ensuring that the maximum number of eligible people are vaccinated and to continue to observe all the precautionary measures till herd immunity is established.
The Health Ministry's data notes that six states -- Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Karnataka, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu -- continue to report a high number of fresh COVID-19 cases and together account for 85.91 per cent of daily new cases in the country.
Expressing concern over the rise in active COVID-19 cases in these states, the Centre has advised people to be 'careful and watchful' and not to lower their guard.
NITI Aayog member V K Paul earlier this week described the coronavirus situation, especially in Maharashtra, as 'worrisome'. Paul advised that in districts where COVID-19 cases are seemingly on the rise, vaccination of eligible individuals should be intensified and prioritised. PTI VIS SAR MIN MIN MIN