Indian scientists keep close watch on Covid’s new variants: Health Minister

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New Delhi, Jun 20: COVID-19 is on the verge of becoming endemic but Indian scientists are keeping a close watch on each new variant and the government would continue to maintain a high alert, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya has said, underlining that the virus has managed to survive and is going to stay.

The minister said the situation is stable now after more than three years of one of the worst pandemics to hit the world but all necessary measures would remain in place to guard against any variant that can prove to be deadly.

The deadly virus was first detected in China in late 2019 while the first case in India was reported in late January 2020. Since then, close to 4.5 crore positive cases have been reported in India and more than five lakh have died during multiple waves.

However, the caseload has declined significantly in recent months and the number of active cases now stands at just about 1,800 with close to 99 per cent overall recovery rate and about 1 per cent fatality rate.

Only 36 new cases were reported on Tuesday, the lowest since March 2020 and miniscule in comparison to a record of over four lakh new cases reported in a day at the peak of the pandemic in May 2021 and again more than three lakh in January 2022.

Also, more than 220 crore doses of Covid vaccines have been administered in India with about 90 per cent of India’s eligible population fully vaccinated.

“Covid is on the verge of entering the endemic stage (endemic ki kagaar pe hai) but our team of scientists at ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) is keeping a close watch on each variant of Covid. Till now, more than 224 variants of Covid have been noticed in the country, continuous genome sequencing is being done for each variant,” he said.

The minister said whenever a new variant is found, it is isolated and then tested for effectiveness of the vaccine and it is also measured how deadly it is.

“All of this is a continuous process and we keep closely tracking it so that we can guard against and be prepared against any variant in the future that can cause any destruction. The situation is stable as of now across the world and, keeping the future in mind, we are alert. But I would say that it is a virus and this virus is never going to go away as it has managed to survive.

“Just like (the) influenza virus has survived somehow and whenever a new variant comes, people experience cough, fever, etc, but does not harm the people much, something similar will happen with Covid and largely that has happened now,” the minister said.

According to experts, a disease is called endemic when its presence becomes constant, based on established patterns, in a population within a particular geographical area, as is the case with seasonal influenza.

Globally, more than 76 crore confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 69 lakh deaths have been reported so far while 1,340 crore vaccine doses have been administered. The cases saw their biggest spike in December 2022, nearly a year after the earlier peak of January 2022. However, in terms of deaths, the worst period was January 2021 and the situation remained worrisome for almost a year.

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced last month that Covid was now “an established and ongoing health issue which no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)” but stopped short of declaring it an endemic.

Recounting the fight against the pandemic, Mandaviya, who took charge of the health ministry in the middle of the coronavirus crisis in July 2021, said Covid management was a big challenge for a vast and diverse country like India, but its success story has now become an example for the entire world. He also holds the charge of the pharmaceutical department as Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilisers, which he has held for much longer.

He also dismissed suggestions that approvals for vaccines were rushed without taking into account long-term side effects and that the recent spate of heart attacks was linked to it, saying the entire process from vaccine research to its administration followed all established international standards.

He said vaccine development and approvals used to take much longer earlier due to various physical and manual processes but the authorities and scientists made full use of the latest technology, including artificial intelligence, this time and, therefore, the entire process could be fast-tracked.

Mandaviya, a BJP leader from Gujarat known to enjoy the trust of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for long, said, “Let me tell you that PM Modi followed scientific ways for all procedures from the very beginning, from Covid management to vaccine research to approvals to the vaccination drive.” “It was the PM’s direction because of which INSACOG (Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium) and several other taskforce and empowered groups were set up for vaccine approvals and other protocols. In the entire Covid journey, we followed scientific ways to fight this pandemic.

“Scientists told us when the vaccines should be approved, and the entire data and data analysis was done as per international standards. India followed the same international standards that were followed by global companies,” he said.

The minister said it all indeed happened very fast in India but those questioning the speed must understand why the approvals came early.

“The times have changed. Earlier, data would get collected, their physical analysis would take place, and a lot of procedures would happen manually, but today we have artificial intelligence, the latest modelling methods, and digital technology, and we thought how can we speed up things by using all of these,” he said.

“Whatever international practice is there for vaccine research and vaccine approval, India followed the same. India’s vaccines are now known as the best in the world as they not only saved India but helped save the rest of the world also. Not just one, but five Indian-researched and Indian-manufactured vaccines are in the market today. Our vaccination journey has been based on scientific data while following all scientific protocols and methods, that I can assure you,” he said. (Agencies)

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