COVID-19 in India: Is it time to mingle yet?

India might lose the fight against the virus once again unless precautions are taken

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Friday 05 November 2021
Coronavirus. Graphic: Raul Valcarcel Romero / Shuttterstock / The Conversation

The revelry of Diwali 2021 was clear by the morning-after smog (November 5). Before that, shoppers thronged markets in major cities. In October, Durga Puja pandals drew tremendous crowds. All this indicated that a large sections of Indians had dropped their guards during the festive season.

Just before Diwali, on November 2, there were 153,776 active cases of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19); 734,600,366 people had received at least one vaccine dose.  

However, the intermingling of citizens should be seen with caution, especially considering the virus’ reproductive, or R value. Overall, it was at 0.90 (calculated October 27, 2021). It has been below 1 since August. The number indicated the number of people an infected person can transmit the disease to.

Of the 11 states with more than 1,000 active COVID-19 cases each, the R value was greater than 1 in only West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh, said Sitabhra Sinha, professor at the Indian Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. Among major cities, R value exceeded 1 in only Kolkata. Sinha periodically analyses the R value for India.

The higher value in West Bengal coincides with the Puja celebrations (that ended October 15). In Himachal, increased tourism during the holidays could be to blame.

Those who contracted COVID-19 during the second wave earlier this year are likely to be immune to re-infection. A new variant of concern (VoC), however, can change that.

Eg, in the United Kingdom, there has been a spurt in cases due to the spread of a sublineage of the Delta variant — the AY.4.2 — which has already been reported in India. 

Delta remained the most prominent VoC in India, according to the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia. Its October 25 bulletin indicated that AY.4.2 is very infrequent (below 0.1 per cent) in the country.

India, however, collects very few samples for genome-sequencing; hence newly emerging variants and their sub-lineages might end up getting noticed only when they result in a surge. 

Sub-variant AY.4.2 is not understood well yet. The Y145H mutation lends it a minor growth advantage but does not increase infectivity or severity, according to Public Health England. 

In the 17 samples classified AY.4.2 in India, two known spike mutations — Y145H and A222V — were not present together. Eight sequences had only spike Y145H while two had only A222V. The remaining four did not have either.

According to INSACOG, India has a higher diversity of the Delta variant and this could make the country particularly vulnerable.  India needs to be careful in the coming months and ensure that COVID-appropriate behaviour is maintained.

The festive season is already in full swing and this would be followed by elections in multiple states. Schools and offices are opening and this too could lead to a surge. 

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