Is India ready for a third wave of COVID? The second wave still hasn’t ended but worries about a new variant, called Delta plus along with the end of most restrictions across states, has sent experts into overdrive warning us to brace ourselves. But are we really ready? Have we learnt any lessons from the devastating second wave that hit large parts of the country?
Health experts have repeatedly said the key to mitigating the effects of another wave lies in fully vaccinating people as fast as possible. But while the pace of vaccination has stepped up in recent days, it is still far from what is required to meet the government’s ambitious target of inoculating all adults by the end of this year. So far, only about 5.6 per cent of the adult population of the country has received two doses of the vaccine.
Health experts have said that unlike the Alpha variant for which even one dose was enough to secure decent protection, the Delta variant, which devastated India in the second wave, requires both doses for adequate protection.
Real concerns of a third wave
Then there is the newly discovered Delta plus variant, which has so far been found in 12 states in India and is sparking real concerns of a third wave.
The highest number of Delta plus cases in the country, 22, have been reported from Maharashtra. The World Health Organisation or the WHO says this variant spreads even faster and binds more easily to lung cells, which is why full vaccination along with masks is essential.
One of India’s most respected virologists, Dr Shahid Jameel, has expressed concern that the Delta plus variant may be capable of dodging vaccines and immunity from previous infections. But while more research is needed on this, what we do know at the moment is that both doses of vaccines are essential to preventing severe disease.
Meanwhile, the Indian Council of Medical Research says it is still too early to say whether the Delta plus variant will be responsible for India’s third wave. The ICMR is studying the efficacy of vaccines against this mutation as well.
In the Supreme Court, the government of India has drastically reduced its estimation of the number of vaccine doses that are projected to be available in India by December 31, 2021.
From initially stating in May that India would have 216 crore (2.1 billion) vaccine doses by December to vaccinate all adults, the centre now says this number is 135 crores (1.3 billion), which is a gap of 81 crores (800 million).
In the affidavit filed before the court, the government has said “the total population of the country aged 18 years and above is approximately 93-94 crore (930 million). As such, administering two doses to these beneficiaries would require an estimated 186 to 188 crore (1.8 billion) vaccine doses.
Out of this requirement, 51.6 crore (500 million) doses will be made available for administration by July 31, 2021, leaving a requirement of approximately 135 crore (1.3 billion) vaccine doses for complete vaccination to the eligible population”.
Warning by the WHO
The WHO has warned that vaccines are not enough to deal with the Delta variants, and that masks must be used as well. A lesson Israel is learning the hard way. The country, which is the world’s most 2-dose, fully-vaccinated country with 60% of its people receiving two doses of Pfizer, has reintroduced face masks as cases have surged with the Delta variant.
Dr. Ashish K Jha of Brown University has said this is largely driven by the unvaccinated part of the population and is spilling over into vaccinated people too but that those who have two doses are only getting mild disease. So vaccines work.
In India, we have virtually opened everything up with a minuscule portion of the population fully vaccinated. People are throwing social distancing norms to the wind, acting like everything is normal again. The government needs to ensure that we are not left scrambling for hospitals and oxygen ever again.
Maharashtra is actually being very careful in unlocking the economy, as Delta plus cases are detected there. But unless we learn lessons from the past, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. The ugly political bickering over Delhi’s requirement for oxygen at the peak of the second wave is a case in point.
Most of all, our vaccination drive simply has to ramp up urgently. Because as we unlock further in most of the country, and Delta plus begins to spread, this is a ticking time bomb. One can only hope and pray it is not as bad as last time. For that, we must rely on science.