BENGALURU: While some of the states are yet again witnessing a rise in Covid-19 cases, hinting at a possible third wave, Dr Shahid Jameel, renowned virologist and former chairman of the Indian SARS-COV-2 Genomics Consortia (INSACOG), and also one of the co-founders of Ignite Life, in an exclusive interview to TNSE says that India needs a quick seroprevalence study to know if there will be a consorted peak or a ripple, or how and when each state may peak.
He also speaks about Ignite Life Science Foundation’s first funds granted by Biocon founder and executive chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw to trigger funding for research on mRNA-based vaccines.
Will the coming together of two ‘variants of concern’, the Delta and Delta-plus, spark a third wave?
The third wave is now dependent on three things - 1) Behaviour of people post relaxation measures; 2) How many people have already been exposed and how many are yet to be vaccinated. So far, about 360 million doses have been given, which means roughly about 24 per cent of people have got one dose.
This is still a small number. The third wave depends on how many people have been exposed and we don’t have good estimates of that. Ideally, there should be a serosurvey done very quickly to find out what percentage of people in India are exposed and that will provide the right kind of data to predict whether there will be enough of a third wave or not. If 70 per cent of people have already been exposed, the nature of things will be very different than 50 per cent being exposed and 50 per cent not exposed; 3) Whether there will be a more infectious variant emerging. By more infectious, I mean more infectious than the Delta variant. Delta was about 100 per cent more infectious than Alpha. Whether there will be another variant that is significantly more infectious than Delta will decide whether there will be a big third wave. Delta-plus is not very infectious. What about vaccines for children? Will there be a need for it?
People saying that children will be more affected are basing it on the assumption that children have largely been left unexposed. While there is no reason to make that assumption, I do not believe that children are less exposed. I think if we do a proper serosurvey, we will know that they are as exposed as adults. If our regulator approves that, then the DNA vaccine can be made available for children. Though I agree that children should be tested before giving it to them, I don’t know of any vaccine that is safe for adults, but unsafe for children. The scenario looks good and we should just vaccinate children.
Do you think that labs under INSACOG are doing enough sequencing? Should they rope in private players?
Sequencing is done strategically. It is not about brute numbers, but yes, they are important. Because, unless you sequence at scale, you may not be able to find what is beginning to emerge. The INSACOG is sequencing at around 0.03 per cent and even at that rate, it did find the Delta-plus emerging precedently. What we need is smart and strategic sequencing, more in areas where it is still emerging instead of areas where it is subsiding. I think it is working well. There are a lot of companies in India that have a lot of sequencing capacity. Yes, I do believe that private players should be allowed in and they should work within a certain mandate and within a certain reporting structure, but strengths of private players should be utilised.
Ignite Life Science Foundation has awarded its first grant for ‘pandemic preparedness’ research. How important will this kind of research be? And what will be the focus of research?
The mission of Ignite is to fill the space between government funding and large foundations. We do a lot of hand-holding. The whole idea is, whoever we fund, we make it possible for them to succeed. The very first grant was made possible by a very generous donation by Biocon founder and executive chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. So we were able to roll out our first grant and that was awarded to IISc, Bengaluru and Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad. The idea is to develop an RNA vaccine platform and also to try and make it thermostable. Remember, India doesn’t have an RNA vaccine platform. Our first plan is to see if we can develop a vaccine with an RNA platform and can be stored in the fridge at 4 degrees Celsius. Yes, pandemic preparedness is very important, but so is antimicrobial resistance and nutrition. There are many things. We are working on many of those. But it depends on philanthropic donations. The time frame for the grant is three years.
Was there any particular reason for your exit from the INSACOG?
That’s not a story at all. Don’t look back, look ahead!