Gagandeep Kang and Karan Thapar. Photo: The Wire
In an interview where she seeks to both explain the steady daily increase of COVID-19 cases and also put it in proper perspective, virologist Gagandeep Kang, says the daily increase is “not a matter of concern”. Speaking specifically about the increase on Saturday, which was 1890, professor Kang said: “All of these numbers sound frightening but remember we are starting from a very low base.” She added this is “not something to worry about”. It is “not a humongous number” for a population size of 1.4 billion.
In a 24-minute interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, Kang, who is professor of virology at the Christian Medical College in Vellore and also a member of the government’s COVID Working Group, says she believes India has been in “an endemic stage for the last two years” i.e. post-Delta onwards. This means we will see small short-lived periodic surges and that is what we are experiencing at the moment. As she put it “a very slow surge in the number of cases (is happening) … not like increases of the past.”
Kang gave details of a cohort study being done by her colleague at the Christian Medical College, professor Jacob John. The study has been underway since Delta. It consistently shows that two-thirds of people found to be infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic. The one-third that have fallen ill have only manifested mild disease.
She agreed that this suggests two things. First, that the number of people asymptomatically affected by COVID-19 is much greater than what the tests are showing. Second, it also means that we are learning to live with asymptomatic COVID infections and that is further evidence of having reached endemicity.
Speaking about the XBB.1.16 variant, which is an Omicron lineage and has been shown to be prevalent in 30% of genomic sequencing done in March, Kang said: “This variant is derived from two others … and is the shape of what is to come.” She said all the variants prevalent in India are sub-lineages of Omicron. XBB.1.16 is the most widely spread.
Kang said that whilst XBB.1.16 may be more infectious than other Omicron lineages, the important point is that there is no evidence of severity of disease, increased hospitalisation or increase in mortality. She specifically pointed out that whilst one or two deaths are being recorded per day due to COVID-19, 4,000 deaths are recorded each day in India because of tuberculosis. Yet there is much more concern in the media and, perhaps, the general public about COVID-19 than about TB. As she put it, COVID-19 is not the top health priority by any means at the moment.
Asked about whether in the present circumstances, the government should make a fresh effort to ensure that the percentage of people who have had the booster dose rises from 27% at the moment, professor Kang said it is only necessary for the 10% of the population over the age of 60 to have a third dose. Of course, it is also necessary for those who are immunocompromised. But for people under 60 and, particularly, the young, there is no need to take a third dose – unless, of course, they want to.
Professor Kang said she was happy with the level of genome sequencing being done at the moment, although she did specifically call for faster real-time release of data and results. She also said there is no need for general COVID-19 testing in the present circumstances. Testing should be done syndromically i.e. for those who are experiencing respiratory diseases.
Finally, asked what would be her general advice about the need to wear masks and be extra cautious in closed spaces containing a large number of people, Kang said for the elderly and the immuno-compromised, mask-wearing is good advice. It is not necessary for the young.
Please see the full interview to understand professor Gagandeep Kang’s standpoint.