In the last week of March, a non-peer reviewed research paper, authored by four researchers connected to the University of Texas at Houston, appeared on a prominent website. These researchers have arrived at an interesting conclusion after tracking data related to aspects of the coronavirus across 178 countries. What they actually discovered was that those countries that had strong BCG vaccination regimens had death rates due to the coronavirus that were lower by a factor of 10, when compared with the death rates due to it in nations that did not have such a BCG regimen.
This may be one of the reasons why India has had—fortunately—very low death rates. Since 1971, India has made the BCG vaccine mandatory. The list of countries with strong BCG vaccination programmes that have also had very low death rates includes Portugal, which is right next door to Italy, Spain and France that have suffered high death rates. These three countries do not have a BCG vaccination regimen. As things stand, almost all countries that have had strong BCG inoculation regimens have low death rates even when there are reasonable numbers of people being infected.
The list includes Malaysia, Ireland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Costa Rica and many other nations. Of course, this does not mean that all countries with low death rates have had strong BCG regimens. Germany, Norway and Denmark are examples of such countries without BCG programmes and yet they have had low death rates. But, interestingly, within Germany, the former East German part of the country has apparently had lower death rates than the former West German part. This too seems to be correlated to the fact that the erstwhile East Germany had had a strong BCG vaccination programme. Interestingly, a preprint has recently appeared from India authored by two researchers at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences at Chandigarh. It seems the Chandigarh researchers have found that there is an even lower incidence of deaths due to the virus in countries that have BCG revaccination programmes.
One must realise the correlation is confined to low death rates and lesser severity of the disease. Yet it is quite possible that one of the reasons India has been able to avoid the occurrence of a high infection rate could be due to the fact that the BCG vaccine does provide some immunity to people to ward off the symptoms of the disease after being exposed to the virus. I venture to say this because the densely populated Dharavi has had a relatively very low incidence of infections even after so many days. I am willing to wager that Dharavi residents must have been inoculated with the BCG vaccine in large numbers. At the time of writing this article, India and Australia are amongst the nations that have launched trials to study the efficacy of the BCG vaccine against the coronavirus. It is also worth being noted that Iran launched a BCG vaccination programme rather late in the day in 1984. That could explain why Iran has had a high mortality rate amongst its elderly population due to the virus.
I have realised that the ICMR test data for various sample sizes has produced infection rates varying between 0.04 and 0.05. This seems to match quite evenly with some experiments that I have conducted with random population samples. Of course, I have not conducted actual tests. All that I have done is ask random population samples of the size of around a 1,000 to indicate any incidences of the disease through their personal sources and not through public sources such as media outlets or government agencies. I have not heard of our hospitals being overburdened or flooded with patients in any part of the country. The two most relevant figures in the context of the spread of the disease are the number of daily deaths and the rates at which the number of infections double.
On both these counts, India has done phenomenally well. Our total deaths stand at over 850 on April 28 after more than a month of the spread of the infection. Very few countries have been so fortunate. Also, the total number of infections are doubling at slower and slower rates. At present we have a doubling rate close to 10. Contrast this with New York that saw the situation easing when the doubling rate of infections slowed down to five days.
There is also an extremely promising vaccine being developed at Oxford University, which may be put to use by September. I have learnt that an Indian pharmaceutical firm is also in on the game to manufacture this vaccine for use in September. This augurs well for India. Finally, as things stand data-wise, Indians stand a greater chance of dying in a road accident than because of the coronavirus. Think about this. And do not fail to observe the lockdown!
Adjunct Professor of Mathematics,University of Houston, Texas, US
(The author is also a former VC, Delhi University. Email ID: firstname.lastname@example.org)