Coronavirus | COVID-19 is a new animal in the zoo; we are still understanding the virus: NITI Aayog member V.K. Paul

India so far has not seen any deaths which are unexplained, says NITI Aayog member V.K. Paul.

March 22, 2020 07:54 pm | Updated 10:24 pm IST - New Delhi

Dr. V.K. Paul. File

Dr. V.K. Paul. File

Co-chair of the Empowered Committee for COVID-19 Response, India, Dr. V.K. Paul said the changed circumstances of the spread of the disease called for a revised testing strategy and marshalling all resources to contain the pandemic. He also indicated that India is close to rolling out a simpler, indigenous testing kit for the virus.

Why has India revised its testing strategy making it more inclusive and allowing private laboratories to test? Is this an indication of the trends that you may be seeing in terms of wider spread of COVID-19?

Currently we are in a state of panic versus not enough panic — the COVID-19 situation is unpredictable so it’s best to align our thoughts with what the Prime Minister articulated... that captures the situation in which we are in currently: We have a problem. We have been containing it to a large extent but the way these things pan out, emerging scenarios are unpredictable and can be very serious, so let us put our act together.

Why have we changed criteria? Because we think it is time to get the first indications to know if it is spreading in India. If it spreads, serious patients will come in and we cannot miss this indication. Till now all our cases were travel and close contact to positive case related. If that phase has passed, next would be serious and we need to know to curtail it...We may enter the next stage, but as of now there is no such indication.

However, we are also cautioning that this has the potential to become an outbreak and become bigger. Nobody can rule that out. India so far has been in a reasonably good shape and we have not seen any deaths which are unexplained. COVID-19 is a new animal in the zoo, we are still understanding the virus that hasn’t seen a full cycle of season, so cannot say conclusively how it will behave.

COVID-19 | Interactive map of confirmed coronavirus cases in India

What we know is that we have a pandemic, we are seeing behaviour of various kinds — somewhere it is explosive, somewhere delayed, somewhere protected... so you should be aware that are scenarios. We currently may be in better-off but be prepared for the worst. That's my request you.

I think the time span is also not chartable, but the general thing is next two months are very critical for us. If the world doesn't change, you change. Social distancing is a community phenomenon and even if things start looking up for us in the near future we should be sensible for the next two months. Even when the virus curve is flattening, it will be a risky period for the spread and social protection is a must.

NITI Aayog had advised the government to rectify the lack of health infrastructure, skewed patient-bed and medical staff ratio…keeping this in mind how prepared is India if we do slip into community transmission? The trends currently indicate massive spikes.

It is no secret that that India’s health infrastructure needs to be augmented and that we need to double of patients-bed and patient-medical staff ratio. We are evolving as country and we have been emphasising the need to increase of healthcare foot print from Tier 2 to Tier 3 cities. So, are we saying, yes, we should have a much stronger and much bigger and much more competent health system and that journey has many more milestones to be achieved.

Coronavirus | Helpline numbers

Currently States across India have been instructed to marshal all their resources to ensure that we are able to contain the virus. They have been asked to use all legal and emergency powers and funds to cater to any medical situation that may come about. You know, it is a situation for which you have to pull out all stops and get makeshift arrangements if need be. You cut down on the routine work, you cut down on your patient load, and then you carve out space for additional work.

We don't know the size of the problem. It may be small, aptly manageable, but then look at how potentially explosive it can be. So far India has remained relatively safe, but we need to be aware and prepared.

How will the 14-hour ‘Janata Curfew’ help?

This one-day bandh is the only way we can cut down or dent transmission. That’s the good, old way things work, when we don’t have a medicine, we don’t have the vaccine... you have to make sure that it doesn’t pass on to the next person. Our reading so far has been that it is spreading in a localised way. But what if we move to the next stage where much larger transmission takes place? Here you need a situation where the virus is not passed from one to another. While we cannot create a perfect situation so social distancing is key and this drill is essential.

Janata Curfew | Updates

Perfect social distancing cannot happen under normal situation, we work… we have to do things…. What the Prime Minister has done is to say “Ok guys, we have been making an effort to break this chain and now let us demonstrate that we can do it in a perfect way over a certain period of time.” And technically even this one day of ‘Janata Curfew’ will achieve denting the transmission.

On Monday, many of us will back to work and things will restart. So what we are doing is demonstrating our resolve and restraint as a nation.

Where are we in terms of making available testing kits and vaccine?

We are looking at two types of technologies/products — one is diagnostic kits and the other, of course, is vaccine which is a long term solution. Currently everything related to COVID-19 is new but I am very happy to tell you that we are very close to making available a simpler and indigenous diagnostic test. There are 4 to 6 very promising options being carried out and we are very close to an early validation and early scale up. I am hoping this could be in matter of weeks.

In pictures | Deserted streets as India observes 'Janata Curfew'

Meanwhile, obviously the vaccines story is a bit longer but we are having 2-3 leads on which the work has been started. Vaccine pipeline will be about eight months to a year or more. Globally, you hear a year. If others can do it, we can do it too.

Also, remember if vaccine comes out somewhere else, they may find it very sensible to manufacture here in India. So that’s the silver lining, we have a huge vaccine production capability. I would also like to assure everyone that all efforts are being done by the government to accelerate this whole effort and to involve all the agencies and regulatory bodies.

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