India’s COVID-19 battle: Why is there an outcry for Remdesivir and concerns over the effectiveness of vaccines on the virus

by Jeremy

Talk to patients getting treated for COVID, and in fact, a colleague of this writer is currently in a hospital in Delhi coping with COVID and desperately in need of Remdesivir. An utter disregard to pandemic-related safety measures is reaching dangerous proportions in India and almost seems symptomatic of a new devil-may-care attitude where even a record viral caseload is not making people change their behavior. Picture the new virus variants landing into the country, new mutations emerging locally, and set them against the images of large gatherings for religious events, elections, cricket matches, and social functions. It is a no-brainer why India is seeing record COVID-19 cases each day. But with new matters now at over 2 lakh a day for three straight days, concerns over what is in-store tomorrow are getting hard to ignore.

Talk to patients getting treated for COVID and in fact, a colleague of this writer is currently in a hospital in Delhi coping with COVID and desperately in need of Remdesivir.

At one end, there are worries around the injections – the availability of vaccine doses, the types of new vaccines, their safety, and their ability to deal with the new variants. On the other end, there are concerns around the infection and how it is unfolding – the changing nature of the virus, its likely resistance to vaccines, and the transmissibility versus the virulence of the virus strains.

Let us try and get answers to some of the critical questions:

How safe and effective are the vaccines?

How much should we worry about the virus variants and the ability of the vaccines to deal with them? Based on studies done abroad, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, India’s top vaccine scientist and professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, tells Financial Express Online: “Of all the strains that we see, we do not need to worry too much.” There are more concerns around the South African variant among all the variants – that vaccine experts refer to as B.1.351. It is also found in India, as are the other variants – B.1.1.7 (the UK variant) and P.1 (the Brazilian strain), apart from the double mutations seen in India and other countries. “I don’t think we know for sure that all the vaccines are not working even against the South African variant – which is regarded as the worst of the lot variants in terms of immune escape. However, these kinds of studies need to be done in India also,” says Dr. Kang.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist at the World Health Organisation and the former director-general at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), says: “All the currently approved vaccines in India and those which have received emergency use listing by the WHO and other stringent regulatory authorities and will also eventually get to India are all very effective in preventing severe disease and death.” She feels “most will probably work against the variants noticed in India also (B.1.1.7, B.1.351, P.1 apart from the double mutations) though more studies are needed on the vaccine efficacy against the different variants.”

Agreeing with the view on the working of the vaccines, Rakesh Kumar Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), a premier Indian research organization based in Hyderabad and focused in the frontier areas of modern biology, says: “because we are not finding any unusually high level of re-infection, it means people who got infected have developed the immunity and can resist the infection. Therefore, he sees reason to believe the vaccines are also working and therefore “those who get vaccinated will also get the protection.”

CCMB (and perhaps a couple of other scientific institutions), he says, is currently conducting the in-vitro neutralizing assay to understand the response of vaccines to the double mutations, and he feels in another ten days to a fortnight more clearer picture should emerge on the efficacy of the vaccines on the double mutations.

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