After months of lockdown in several states of India during second wave of COVID-19, people are now getting back to their normal lives. Offices are being opened, restrictions are being lifted and vaccination drives are showing good pace. People are relieved on getting back their freedom to travel and move around. But with freedom comes the neglect and casual behavior of people towards COVID-19 norms, which can potentially bring the third wave. The markets are as crowded as before, marriages and gatherings are being held without paying attention to the rules and regulations, and people are still making excuses for not wearing masks in public.
With all this going on in the background, the Delta Plus variant has also officially crossed the mark of fifty cases in the country which doctors think can be the driver of the third wave. The majority of these cases are being reported in Maharashtra which has now relaxed its lockdown rules recently. The new Delta Plus variant, which has been declared as the virus of concern by the health ministry, is speculated to be the driving force behind the third wave of coronavirus in the country. According to experts, if the third wave is going to hit the nation, it might be due to this newly found strain. It may hit India by early October with the arrival of winter since respiratory viruses spread much more during the dry cold weather.
Before understanding the threat of this new mutation, it is important to understand what mutation is. Mutations in a virus are nothing but random errors that occur while it replicates itself in our bodies. Since the ultimate goal of every virus is to replicate using a host body, greater the number of people infected, more the virus agents and thus greater the possibility of making errors or mutations while it tries to copy itself. The errors may either making it weaker or increase its resistance and make it stronger! As these mutations start accumulating there is a greater chance of the virus to develop into something more dangerous and causing severe illness in its host (here humans). Thus, we can actually conclude that the virus becomes stronger every passing second. Even if a nation is to break free of the virus the danger will still prevail unless and until the whole world is wiped clean of it. That’s exactly most nations are working together to tackle the coronavirus and free humanity from the pandemic.
There have been mutations in the past too, so why is this particular strain causing so much concern among scientists and governments? There are two reasons. Each virus shows a number of mutations which are then put under two categories namely, the virus of concern or the virus of interest. Most of the mutations fall under the category of interest; these viruses don’t pose a threat and are thus mainly used for studies to get better information about the virus and its behavior. The newly found mutations of the virus which is more infectious, or more virulent, or possessing an immune escape mechanism are put under the latter category. Even though there is not enough information to answer many of the questions in terms of the Delta Plus, the strain is still being a cause of concern because of its closeness to the mutation responsible for the second wave that is the Delta variant. Furthermore, keeping in mind that prevention is always better than cure, the government has labeled it as a virus of concern.
The second reason is because of its connections with the South African strain. This particular mutation which developed into the Delta Plus variant is being feared because of similar observations in South Africa. In South Africa, the Beta strain of virus showed similar mutation. From various studies and trials, it was shown that vaccines are not very effective against this strain. If we draw a parallel between these two variants we can come to a conclusion that if Delta Plus starts spreading across a country it can cause a huge toll to humans.
One major challenge that our system is currently facing is regarding the lack of information about the causative variant in a patient. The RT PCR test which is being used to detect COVID-19 positive patients in the country cannot detect the virus mutant. Even after the test one really can’t tell if the patient is suffering because of the Alpha variant, the Beta variant, the Delta or the Delta Plus variant. Thus, the number of people who are getting infected by the new strain is largely unknown as of now. However, Genome sequencing which now is available in 28+ labs across India is a powerful method to detect the virus variant responsible. Even though the number of labs doing this test has jumped from 10 to 28 it is still not possible to cover even a quarter of the country’s population with this. And thus sampling method is used to detect if the new Delta Plus variant is on the rise in a particular location. In this method a small sample size of patients are tested where the cases are spiking. These samples are then studied to evaluate the dominance of this new strain in all the samples collected, and based on this number it is determined if the Delta Plus variant is the cause behind sudden increase in COVID-19 cases in the tested area. The new strain also puts the effectiveness of current vaccines in question and there is still not enough data to answer it precisely. Experts believe the new variant will probably decrease the efficacy a little but since the current vaccines have a much higher efficacy than the cutoff we will still have quite a buffer to work with. Here the word efficacy is in reference to controlling the severity of the coronavirus cases and not actually to prevent it altogether.
To prevent or minimize the effect of third wave the government should closely monitor cases to check for hotspots of the new Delta Plus variant and implement mini lockdowns if necessary to control the spread, there’s also a need to increase our testing rate. Vaccination being our only effective weapon against it, we should increase the pace of it while checking the efficacy of vaccines against the new and upcoming strains. Modifications to vaccines or vaccination programs should be strategized if the latest variant is found to be immune against the current vaccines or if the vaccine efficacy drops below fifty percent which is the cutoff used by the World Health Organization to approve new vaccines.
The possibility or severity of third wave is going to largely depend on our behavior and characteristics as a population. As the prior exposure to the infection and vaccination rates climb up, herd immunity will come into play and the spread of virus will decrease. One of the main reasons for a large number of cases during the second wave during April and May was due to the public negligence, and complacency shown by the government officials. And now as soon as the second wave is over, public seem to be repeating the same behavior.
To completely eradicate the coronavirus and its mutations, we need to stop the spread and the best way to do that would be following essential COVID-19 protocols – washing hands regularly, using a proper mask, going out only when necessary, avoid crowding, and practice safe distancing. These golden rules to break the coronavirus chain are essential, especially in India where the public and the government can’t afford another lockdown. Thus, the answer to the question whether we will have to face the third wave or not lies with each one of us. The third wave needs many more infections to happen, that is many people who are infected with coronavirus meet people who have not yet been infected or vaccinated – and all this depends on our behavior. If we are careful and responsible the third wave is unlikely to cause such a mass destruction. While there is no need to panic, we all should cooperate with our authorities by following the preventive rules. We already have lost a lot in the first two waves, so let us understand our responsibilities and prevent the coronavirus from taking away any more of our loved ones.
– Priyanshi Mishra (Freelancer)
Picture Credits: IANS