Prof (Dr) Balram Bhargava is Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research, and one of the officials leading India’s battle against the novel coronavirus. He spoke to Anuradha Mascarenhas.
How helpful was it that India escaped the first round of the virus’s spread in January and February?
Yes, we were fortunate not to have many infections in January and February. But we were very well prepared even at that time. The news of people falling sick in Wuhan had started to come in December itself, and we had begun sensitising our laboratories. We have dealt with similar outbreaks in the past, like the Nipah virus and Zika virus, and were able to contain their spread. We knew the drill, and we prepared ourselves. By January 17, we were ready to deal with the outbreak. The fact that there was no serious outbreak in January and February gave us the time to strengthen our system and to sensitise the public.
What could be the possible reasons for India to escape the initial round of the virus’s spread?
It could be a combination of several things. The timely evacuation from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, rapid and compulsory testing of passengers at airports, stepping up of social distancing measures, all could have helped. It is not that we did not get any case during this time. We did have a few in Kerala among people who had returned from Wuhan. But timely quarantine helped in preventing community transmission. We have been fortunate thus far in not having cases of community transmission.
Data suggest that spread is very rapid once about 100 people are infected in a country. Is that path inevitable?
It is possible to avoid that curve. It is not at all necessary that we follow the same curve of exponential spread. And we are trying our best to prevent community transmission. Travel advisories and restrictions, guidelines and FAQs for public issued by the Health Ministry, and the training imparted to medical personnel and health staff are all playing very important roles. If we are able to ensure that an infected person who has returned from another country does not pass on the virus in 14 days, we should be able to halt community spread. Steps to prevent community transmission have to be carried on alongside containment strategies.
Is it true that the transmission could slow down as temperatures rise?
There is no evidence or data to suggest that with any degree of certainty. Changes in weather may or may not have an impact on the spread of the disease.
What is an optimistic timeline for a possible vaccine?
The National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune has already isolated the COVID-19 virus strain. Some other countries — Japan, Thailand, China and the United States — too, have isolated the strain.
What this means is that the clinical sample of the COVID-19 patient was put in tissue culture, and the virus has been grown in laboratory conditions. The isolation by the NIV will now help in future development of drugs, vaccines, and rapid diagnostic kits. A vaccine, however, will take time.
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Are the ICMR labs sufficient to conduct testing of samples?
ICMR, which is also the testing agency for the virus, has expanded its network of labs equipped to test COVID-19 from 51 to 63. The secondary test for reconfirmation of the virus, which was earlier conducted only in NIV, too has been expanded to 31 labs. These steps will enable India to expedite detection of the virus, and will help in effective management.
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People should not panic, but take precautionary measures. Strong systems and processes are in place to deal with the outbreak, and the Ministry is constantly monitoring the situation. We will be issuing advisories and revising guidelines for testing as and when necessary.
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