The COVID-19 pandemic has not yet reached endemic stage, where the infection is fairly common in the population, as the current highly infectious Omicron variants could still cause fatalities among vulnerable sections with rapid spread. Hence, masks, which are ‘super vaccines’, hand hygiene and indoor ventilation should continue to be the norm, top scientists and public health professionals have cautioned.
"Hyderabad is recording around 20 positive cases a day, but the waste water sampling shows the cases are much more. Just because many people are not falling sick, doesn't mean the virus is not there. It is a hidden enemy," said Tata Institute for Genetics and Society director Rakesh Mishra.
There is likelihood of a more infectious variant emerging as the virus is being challenged with infection- and vaccine-induced immunity, said the former director of CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology.
Participating in the ‘Pandemic to Endemic shift of COVID-19: What we need to do’ virtual discussion organised by the Federation of Asian Biotech Associations recently, Dr.Mishra said there is no question of eradication of COVID, but only containment by tracking new variants early, surveillance and genomic sequencing can help us to “learn to live in a safe way”.
“The virus is so smart that zero COVID or travel ban is not going to work. Masks should be our culture and civic responsibility to save ourselves and others. Since we do not know the long-term effects of this infection, we have to be very careful,” he affirmed.
The top scientist reiterated the urgency of taking up waste water sampling in all urban areas for efficient surveillance as it is going to be “matter of luck” on any new waves, milder or not, as every infected person could help the virus to mutate as it seeks to break the immunity. Vaccines serve as roadblock to the virus and in no way as a catalyst for mutations, added Dr Mishra.
Public Health Foundation of India president K. Srinath Reddy said though the South Asia region seems to be doing well despite surge in infection elsewhere, the global COVID pandemic continues to be an “alarming threat”. ”It is bound to become endemic, but not yet. If the pandemic is raging in other parts of the world, the virus can still infect us despite vaccination or prior infection due to immune-defying virus variant,” he described.
Dr.Reddy stressed the importance of being “on guard” as the supposed ‘T’cell immunity period is not known. “We can only hope the new variants will not cause future waves with weakening immunity among the population. Crowded events indoor should be avoided to prevent upsurge in new waves,” he added.
University of Hyderabad’s honorary professor B. Ranga Reddy, former dean at the School of Life Sciences and executive director of FABA P. Reddanna and scientists from across the globe participated in the discussion.