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healthcare | IST

COVID cases expected to rise globally; vaccine-derived immunity will last longer, says WHO’s Soumya Swaminathan

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Single-day COVID case additions dropped to the lowest since March 2020. This, when several countries across Europe are seeing a surge in COVID infections and are re-imposing curbs and lockdowns. What does this mean for India and the world? CNBC-TV18’s Shereen Bhan spoke to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, WHO, on this and a host of related topics.

India has reported a decline in single-day COVID case additions resulting in a drop in active cases. In fact, active caseload has now dropped to the lowest level since March of 2020. The decline in India comes at a time when several countries across Europe are seeing a surge in COVID infections and are now re-imposing curbs and lockdowns.
What does this mean for India and the rest of the world? To discuss that and more on the COVID trajectory, variants, vaccines and treatment – CNBC-TV18’s Shereen Bhan spoke to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the WHO.
On the current rise in cases, Swaminathan said, “I think, it is important to really look at what is happening and I take several messages away from what we are seeing today, globally. The first thing I should say is it is all entirely predictable and something that WHO has been focused on saying that vaccine is one tool, it is not the only tool, we have to do all of these other things. So, we are seeing several different patterns. You mentioned India, very low cases, currently, more or less plateaued at a low level, with some deaths, but also plateaued at the low level.”
She added, “You then see countries which have a surge in infections, Western Europe, many countries in Western Europe surge in infections, some increase in hospitalisations due to a number of reasons, we can talk about that, but not a significant increase in deaths. So, an uncoupling between infections and deaths, largely because the vulnerable groups have been almost entirely vaccinated. That is, people above 60, people above 70. Then you have another group of countries, mainly Eastern Europe, very worrying scenario, where vaccination coverage rates are somewhere in the 30 to 40 percent range. Here, you are seeing not only increasing cases, it is still the Delta variant across the region. But this is translating into increased deaths, similar to what we have seen in previous waves before the vaccination started.”
On the India scenario, she said, “If you look at the SERO surveys that were done by ICMR, you know, several months ago, in July and August, we were already at 65 percent of the population having been exposed to the virus or having antibodies. Of course, we are extrapolating to the whole country from the survey, which was done in about 70 districts. So yes, it is making a big assumption. But if we make that assumption, then we think a large part of the population was exposed, had antibodies, natural infection does generate immunity, but it is variable immunities. In some people, it is strong, it can last for a long time. In others, it may be not that strong. In about 10 to 20 percent people, you can't even detect antibodies after infection. This is why vaccination is important, and a full course -- two doses of the vaccine is what gives you that assurance regardless of whether there has been previous infection or not -- you know, that you will be protected for a length of time.”
On vaccination, Swaminathan said, “The new evidence that is coming out seems to suggest that vaccine-derived immunity will stay for a long time, even if the level of antibodies in the blood starts declining, which is what all these studies are showing today. They are looking at neutralising antibodies and saying we need to worry because this is reducing in four months or six months, but actually, the memory cells that are being generated are going to protect you for much longer. How long? We don't know. There may be some time in the future when we will need additional or booster doses for some vulnerable groups, that still needs to be determined, I think. But for the majority of healthy adults, a course of vaccination should be good protection for at least a year, possibly, possibly longer.”
On booster dose, she said, “It is a very interesting concept and question of heterologous boosters, or what is called mix and match, where if you have taken a primary course, with one vaccine, you might want to take an additional dose, or some people are even saying first dose and then a second dose with a different platform, different types of vaccine and it is possible that these will be as good or better than taking two of the same. But this data needs to be generated, we cannot come to conclusions without seeing the data. So, in the future, it is possible that the third dose or a booster would be with a different vaccine. But still the question remains as to who will need that additional dose.”
Just 2 weeks after the emergency approval for Covaxin, the chief scientist at the World Health Organisation Soumya Swaminathan has defended the emergency use listing process.
She said the time taken to grant emergency use listing ranges from 45 days to 165 days and Covaxin came in at about 90 days. She also says there has never been any kind of political interference in the vaccine approval process.
“The time taken for EUL from the submission of full data set has ranged from 45 days to 165 days and Covaxin came in at about 90 days. It has not been the vaccine that took the longest but we have to respect these independent scientific and technical processes. There really should not be and there has never been and hopefully will never be any kind of political elements that come into this kind of rigorous science-based evaluation.”
For full interview, watch accompanying video...