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BW Dialogue: Covid 19- separating facts from myths
Dr. Anirban Mahapatra a leading microbiologist and author of "Separating fact from fiction: Covid 19", in conversation with Dr. Annurag Batra, Chairman &Editor in Chief, BW Businessworld and Exchange4media clears the air around Covid-19 and myths surrounding it.
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The last 11 months have been unimaginable for one and all. We are in season 2 of the pandemic, as against the hope that it will be over in 3-4 months. The variants are also proving to be a lot more transmissible than the original strain against which vaccines are being developed. Though the economy took a major hit, there is quite a bit of optimism in terms of recovery.
Dr. Batra: What prompted you to write the book? Can you tell us about separating fact from fiction?
Dr. Mahapatra: Till January 2020 I was just tracking the "Wuhan virus", which got me thinking about the pandemic and the various parameters associated with it including the transmissibility and fatality. The ironic thing about these pandemics is when they first arrive the technology to counter them is non-existent. The measures we take are essentially 100 years old, like washing our hands, social distancing, covering our mouth while sneezing, etc.
While going through social media and coming across the various conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic, I realized it is important to document our experiences and lessons. Right now we are shell shocked but we have to learn the lessons from this. The biggest myths we have now are surrounding vaccines. In India however, we are less hesitant to take the vaccination than other countries, especially developed ones where they do not think about infections on a day-to-day basis. On the flip side, we do not have vaccinations for adults, though we get them as children. In the west, however, there is a trend of getting vaccinated year on year with flu shots. I am saying in this book that vaccines are safe and effective, and even if you are infected earlier the vaccine will enhance the effectiveness. This is one of the myths I am trying to dispel that they are not safe.
Dr. Batra: What are the other myths that exist? What are the counter-views to those?
Dr. Mahapatra: There are quite a few myths, one of which is there is no immunity, that is, if a person gets infected once they are as susceptible to get infected again. We cannot say this with certainty because the virus had not been around long enough for anyone to guess the immunity. What we found was antibodies stay around for 6 months or so, and T-cells, one of the main pillars of immunity are also involved in this. If one is infected it is most likely that they will have immunity, the only rider being lac of immunity against the new variants.
Dr. Batra: As a scientist and industry expert, what do you see happening in the future in terms of the decline of the numbers and where are we headed?
Dr. Mahapatra: There are several variables, and one of them is the emergence of mutants, the second variable is how fast we can get the vaccines. I do see 2021 as a year where we strive towards normalcy in many parts of the world, and Diwali 2021 will be much better than 2020. As far as the virus is concerned it is not going to go away, it is going to remain in circulation as an endemic virus. What will happen is greater immunity.
The government in India is doing a good job, with one crore twenty lakh Indians vaccinated last week. When you look at the US, the mortality is very high, and they have a very advanced healthcare system. What went wrong in the US that so many deaths happened?
Dr. Mohapatra: This will be an upcoming topic of discussion for years to come. Sitting here in the US I can tell you it was a train wreck in slow motion. There were conflicting messages and a lack of leadership and there were some things that happened early on which put the US on a negative trajectory. If you remember they came up with the CTC diagnostic tests which did not work at all, instead of using the tests mandated by WHO. There are also sections of the population in US that have downplayed the pandemic and refuse to wear masks.
Dr.Batra: What should the government be doing better to boost healthcare in India?
Dr. Mahapatra: There is no national emergency program to vaccinate everyone. In the US every state is following a different plan. I was heartened to see an increase in money allocation in the budget in the healthcare sector, not just for testing but also for surveillance. The uniformity of healthcare across Indian states is yet to be achieved, which is the need of the hour to reduce disparity among states in terms of the health infrastructure that we have. On the bright side, India is already a hub for the manufacturing of drugs and vaccines, which enables India to play a major role. For instance, till some time ago PPE kits manufacturing industry was zero, now we are valued at 8,000 crores.