Shahid Jameel, April 2020. Photo: Ibrahimkhalil2004/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
- The new sub-lineage of the delta variant, AY.4.2, is only moderately more infectious than the delta variant, Shahid Jameel said.
- COVID-19 cases are climbing in the UK, likely because of the virus spreading through an unvaccinated younger population, although mortality is quite low.
- According to him, there is “no simple answer” as to why the UK has so many more cases than Germany, France and Spain.
In an interview to The Wire, virologist Shahid Jameel said “India seems to be going towards an endemic phase”.
“For the last 2-3 months, COVID-19 cases have been steadily declining,” he added, but that “we haven’t reached endemicity as yet but are going towards it”.
The prime cause for concern at the moment is if a new variant of the novel coronavirus might emerge, pushing the number of new cases on the upward trend once again.
In a 22-minute-long conversation, Jameel, who is at present a senior research fellow at the Green Templeton College, Oxford University, said the situation in UK is cause for “concern”, but not panic, as its COVID-19 case load is rising at 40,000-45,000 new cases each day and is expected to rise further.
“They are going to get worse but because the UK has done so well with vaccinations, severe cases will be under control,” Jameel said.
As for the new sub-lineage of the delta variant, AY.4.2 – more than 15,000 cases of which have been sequenced in Britain – Jameel said it is only moderately more infectious than the delta variant. “It appears to be spreading a bit faster but exactly by how much we don’t know.”
According to him, AY.4.2. has two additional mutations but they are outside the receptor-binding domain of the virus; mutations in the domain are thought to have greater impact on the transmissibility and infectivity of the virus.
In fact, Jameel said laboratory results indicate that AY.4.2 has “limited biological significance”.
He also said that we do not yet know with any significant certainty whether AY.4.2 is the cause of the ongoing surge in the UK, but also that the cause is more likely to be a spread of COVID-19 amongst teenagers and children. Nearly 50% of the new cases are among people of that age group.
The seven-day average of daily cases in the last week increased by 15% and the seven-day average of deaths increased by 7%.
However, Jameel added: “While numbers are going up the number of people with severe disease is not going up.” He said that compared to January, mortality today is down ten-fold.
According to him, there is “no simple answer” as to why the UK has so many more cases than Germany, France and Spain. The daily increase in the island nation is also 4x that of Germany, 6-7x that of France and 18-19x that of Spain.
The professor said one concern facing the UK is that this year, unlike in 2020, any rise in the number of COVID-19 cases will also coincide with a large number of flu cases.
This, to him, could be a worry because it is “clinically hard to distinguish between them”. And when both happen together, more people will need to go to hospitals, adding pressure on the healthcare system.
For now, only 6% of the UK National Health Service beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients – compared to 30% in January 2021.
However, Jameel said although serious illness and mortality are not a major concern of the present surge in the UK, one problem could be the large number of cases giving the virus more opportunities to mutate to a new form, potentially more infectious form.
A second concern is that people who get infected but do not become seriously ill could still end up with long COVID-19, which can further stress the healthcare system.