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'India must do 7 million vaccinations a day'

By Ruchika Chitravanshi
Last updated on: May 22, 2021 11:30 IST
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'If you approached it with that level of aggression in 100 days, you would have vaccinated more than half of your country.'
'On a mass scale you will be able to eliminate that wave.'

IMAGE: Inoculation underway at a vaccination centre at Hajo in Kamrup, Assam, May 21, 2021. Photograph: Anuwar Hazarika/ANI Photo

Dr Faheem Younus, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland, tells Ruchika Chitravanshi it is suicidal to think we have eliminated the virus.

Vaccination, he emphasises, is key to protecting against the third wave.

 

What do you think India should be doing differently to handle the pandemic?

There has to be a unified public messaging as information is changing very fast. Every country has its own challenges.

Brazil is spending 16 times more on healthcare than India. At present, you have less than 10 per cent of the population fully vaccinated. This is the infrastructure upon which you are going to build in a very short amount of time. One thing you can do very quickly is educate people on the appropriate use of the oxygen.

Why do you think Pakistan and Bangladesh have not been as badly hit as India?

We don't know what exact strain, besides the B117 (first detected in the UK) and the other strain detected in India, might be circulating.

The worst-case scary scenario is, who knows, Bangladesh and Pakistan could be just one month behind. We hope not.

That's the other thing in a pandemic; we absolutely have to be in preoccupation with failure, particularly when you have such a weak infrastructure.

It's suicidal to have 'Mission Accomplished' banners up. That hubris is punished by the virus; we have seen it in Brazil, the USA, the UK.

On the other hand, Taiwan, Hong Kong and New Zealand have a very balanced, careful approach, and sort of respect for the virus.

We are talking of a third wave even as we deal with a catastrophic second wave. Do you think it will be worse?

I don't even know how many waves we have to deal with. In the US, we are not likely to see another wave like we saw in January because we've had nearly half of the country vaccinated.

In India, you have to mitigate the chance of the next wave by increasing your vaccination to nearly 7 million a day. For this international help has to kick in since it is a global humanitarian crisis.

If you approached it with that level of aggression in 100 days, you would have vaccinated more than half of your country. On a mass scale you will be able to eliminate that wave.

If 80 per cent of over a billion people in India are still susceptible, with that sort of an infrastructure, you're a sitting duck.

Do you see any medicine likely to work in treating Covid in the coming months?

I don't think a medicine is likely to compete with a vaccine. Vaccines are your way to go.

New studies suggest the virus is airborne. Does it mean I can get it just sitting by my window?

Airborne does not mean that the air is contaminated, I cannot emphasise that enough. Airborne means that in a crowded indoor space, you may get infected even if you are six feet away from someone.

What do you think of India's position on genome sequencing?

The genomic sequencing has been done in less than 1 per cent of the total number. You're drawing conclusions from really soft, incomplete, data. It's risky.

If you want to project what will happen next and how you can stop it, genomic sequencing is the tool you need to use. Otherwise you'll make big decisions like stopping air travel based on bad data and unnecessarily create panic and hurt the economy.

How concerned are you about India with respect to the future of this pandemic?

The virus has gotten such a foothold in the world that eliminating it is a pipe dream. H1N1 (swine flu) came 11 years ago and never went away.

The goal here is to make Covid irrelevant.

Today we can have one intervention mass vaccination. Companies will start thinking about second tier vaccination, particularly mRNA vaccine; they're very easy to modify.

Just changing this vaccine to include new variants is not that hard and Pfizer is already working on it.

With time, this virus is going to run out of its strength. I am not pessimistic about this situation. It is going to end.

Do you think even if Covid goes away, there will be a threat of a new virus or another pandemic?

That threat has always been there. The phenomenon of a pandemic didn't surprise any one of us.

Its degree of severity in the lack of preparedness and coordination and frankly speaking, the politicisation of the virus is what has surprised us more than anything else; how divided we are at a time of crisis. There are a lot of lessons the world has learned.

People are surprised how China controlled it so quickly. They controlled it because they had learned their lessons with H1N1 flu and SARS1.

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Ruchika Chitravanshi in New Delhi
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The War Against Coronavirus

The War Against Coronavirus