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India was in dark on Delta variant: Dr Eric Feigl Ding

India has to speed up its genome sequencing, and invest in technology to ramp up not only whole genome sequencing, but also testing.

Published: 29th June 2021 05:51 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th June 2021 03:55 PM   |  A+A-

Dr Eric Feigl-Ding

Express News Service

BENGALURU: The Delta variant of B 1.617.2 lineage has created havoc and is spreading fast even in the most-vaccinated countries. India, too, is still reeling under the effects of the deadly second wave due to this variant.

Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, a US-based epidemiologist and Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, told The New Indian Express that India, where the Delta variant first emerged, was in the dark for a long time and with the evidence of the variant escaping vaccine efficacy, the country needs to now seriously ramp up genome sequencing and testing to mitigate the virus.

“If a variant rises from your country, to stop it from spreading to the world and harming your own citizens, you need to invest in resources. Many variants may emerge and if there is a delay in identifying them, there might be many lockdowns in the future, not just in India, but across the world,” Dr Feigl-Ding said. 

India has to speed up its genome sequencing, and invest in technology to ramp up not only whole genome sequencing, but also testing. Many variants may emerge, and if there is a delay in identifying them, there might be many lockdowns in future, not just in India but across the world, said Feigl Ding, epidemiologist, Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, in an exclusive interview with TNIE.

India reeled under a deadly second wave of the coronavirus, caused mainly by the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus. But now we are already talking about the third wave. Will India see another wave?
It’s hard to say. I think India is still very vulnerable. We don’t know enough about Delta-Plus but it’s likely to be as transmissible as the Delta variant. Obviously, India doesn’t have enough vaccines rolled out, especially two doses. Delta is very evasive against one dose. Knowing that Delta-Plus has reinfection potential, I think it is worrisome.

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We are seeing Delta create havoc across the world. Do you think India identified the variant late?
I think India doesn’t have genome sequencing capabilities like the UK does. Very few countries have the expertise. This data allows us to find out and know the variant in advance. Although we identified the variant months ago, we did not have the sequencing in order to know how much it was growing, how quickly, and to what percent it had spread in the population. Does the vaccine work against it? For this information, a lot of people have to be sequenced. Right now we know that Delta is twice as contagious as the original strain. It is an approximately 4x greater risk for hospitalisation than the original strain and 2.5x greater than alpha. It is a very risky variant. But we learnt all this only because Delta has invaded the UK, and it is able to track down these numbers epidemiologically and genomically. But India was in the dark for a longer time.

What should India do now?
There should be a rule that India should do more testing. There are also shortcut tests like genotyping, instead of full genome sequencing. You need to develop genome typing shortcut tests, laboratory capabilities for genotyping, typing and do them fast. It requires infrastructure and investment from the government. Each country has different lessons to learn from each other. But if the variant rises from your country, then to stop it from spreading to the world and harming your own citizens, you need to invest in these resources. We need to wear masks, especially indoors. Ventilation is as critical as masks.

Is it necessary that the next variant is more transmissible?
It is not always worse. Mutations go in random directions until there is an evolutionary reason to direct into certain directions. We are reaching the point where we have more people who were infected and fewer people who have never been infected. The virus will now search to become more evasive -- of immune system, vaccines etc. That’s the trend. Delta-Plus is not just another random mutation, it is Delta with a previously known tricky mutation that is known to be evasive.

How important is vaccination?
Vaccination is important but a country cannot rely only on this as a strategy, until vaccination is 80 per cent or more. Herd immunity by vaccination is a term used by many countries, but unvaccinated people have almost no protection, even if 40 per cent of the population is vaccinated. It happens only when almost 80 per cent vaccination is achieved. However, two vaccine doses definitely prevent hospitalisation.



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