A medical staff relocates a Covid-19 patient at a hospital in Kolkata, India on February 3.  Photo: AFP.

Has India achieved public immunity?

Three months ago, hundreds of patients at Jain’s hospital were admitted to the intensive care unit. About 10 people die here every day. Now, the number of Covid-19 patients at the hospital can only be counted on the fingers. Only two out of 200 ventilators are in use. Hospitals treating Covid-19 patients across the country also reported a similar situation.

“We breathed a sigh of relief,” said Jain.

A medical staff relocates a Covid-19 patient at a hospital in Kolkata, India on February 3. Image: AFP.

India recorded its first case of nCoV infection on January 30, 2020 and its first death in mid-March 2020. The number of new cases per day peaked at more than 97,000 cases in September 2020, with deaths averaging 1,000 cases per day for that month.

The number of deaths then began to decline. On 3/2, India recorded 94 deaths. New cases reported for the day were 8,635, equivalent to those recorded on the same day in New York state, where India’s population is less than 2%. India has one of the lowest mortality rates among the 20 most severely affected countries in the world, due in part to its young population.

Experts have warned that nCoV will wreak havoc on the populous cities of India due to poor sanitation. There are also concerns that the underinvestment of the health system is at risk of a pre-pandemic collapse.

The government sought to halt the virus early, halted international flights and imposed one of the world’s most stringent blockade orders in March. Many states require people to wear masks.

However, the restrictions have been gradually eased since June 2020 as the government sought to boost the pandemic-devastated economy. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela in January, most not wearing masks. Tens of thousands of farmers have also participated in mass protests in Delhi since November 2020 to protest against the new agricultural law.

The epidemiologists in India say that there is a possible explanation for the decline in new infections: Viruses are harder to spread because a significant portion of the population, at least in the cities, is infected with COV.

Experts say that the number of people with nCoV in India may be much higher than official figures. State and national surveys of the number of people with anti-nCoV antibodies support this point. An official national survey from December to January of health workers, residents of urban and rural areas near urban areas, found that about 21.5%, or nearly 280 million people, have antibodies. Meanwhile, according to official data, India recorded 10.8 million cases and nearly 155,000 deaths.

In New Delhi, one of the hardest hit cities, serological data released this week showed that more than half of the 28,000 sampled people developed antibodies.

The major Indian cities have probably “reached the threshold of population immunity,” said Giridhar Babu, an epidemiologist at the Public Health Organization of India. He thinks the virus will continue to spread, but “the number of new cases will not be the same as before”.

However, There are mixed opinions around the question of whether community immunity has emerged in much of India. “I think there are already enough people in India with nCoV. And that might be why the number of new cases is falling,” says virologist Shahid Jameel. “But in the absence of actual numbers, it’s really hard to conclude.”

World Health Organization regional director Poonam Khetrapal Singh praised the Indian people wearing masks, keeping distance and hygiene, saying that these have proven effective in curbing transmission.

But she added: “India is such a large and diverse country, it is difficult to attribute the reduction to public immunity.”

Meanwhile, India is rapidly rolling out vaccination with an ambitious goal of vaccinating 300 million people by July.

A study published in the Lancet last week found nCoV flare-ups in the city of Manaus, Brazil, where it was badly affected, despite the high proportion of people with antibodies there.

Some of the reasons given include impaired immunity resulting from a previous nCoV infection and a new stronger variant. Experts say such developments mean it is too soon for India to celebrate.

“We can’t let our guard down,” Singh said. “The more we let the virus spread, the higher the risk of more variants appearing. This risk exists globally.”

Phuong Vu (According to the AFP / Washington Post)


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