The coronavirus pandemic has made our folks familiar with a scientific term called ‘herd immunity.’ For months, scientists across the globe we’re citing herd immunity as an option to combat the rising COVID-19 infections. But do you even know what herd immunity is? In layman’s terms, herd immunity is an indirect immunity against an infectious disease after the major proportion of a population becomes immune to it either via vaccinations or infections. But, in a recent press conference on 30 July, the Health Ministry of India said that herd immunity is not a strategic option for India. Let’s find out why!
When asked about the potential of herd immunity in India, here’s what Rajesh Bhushan, an Officer on Special Duty from the Health Ministry of India had to say. “Herd immunity in a country of the size of India cannot be a strategic choice or an option. It can only be an outcome, and that too at a very high cost. Many people will have to get sick and hospitalized, overwhelming the health infrastructure and leading to more loss of life. Herd immunity can only be achieved through immunization in the future. This is why adopting COVID-19 appropriate behavior and following precautions is necessary.”
Talking about the topic of community transmission in the country, the Health Ministry said that 80% of the COVID-19 cases in the country are from only 50 districts out of 739. Me. Rajesh Bhushan said, “India has a cluster of cases and pockets of localized transmission. With a population of 138 crores, only 50 out of 740 districts contribute to 80% cases. In 80% of new cases, the source of infection and close contact can be traced within 72 hours. How’s that community transmission?”
Me. Bhushan also lauded and thanked all the frontline healthcare workers for maintaining their sangfroid and helping people recover. Currently, India’s recovery rate is 1.9 times the number of active cases in the country. As more people recover from COVID-19, the recovery rate will rise further. Moreover, India has a mere fatality rate of 2.21% which is the lowest in the world.
Also, as the number of coronavirus cases has surged, the government has ramped up the testing too. As of now, the gold standard for diagnosing COVID-19 is RT-PCR (Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction). This diagnostic tool can detect even small quantities of nuclear material of a pathogen. ICMR has made it mandatory for each negative rapid antigen test to be checked again using the RT-PCR diagnostic tool. This eliminates the risk of false COVID-19 negative reports. As per the Health Ministry, India is conducting nearly 324 tests per 10 lakhs population every day.
Moreover, 24 states and Union Territories in the country have reported a lower fatality rate than the national average. 16 Indian states have also confirmed a higher recovery rate than the national average. In terms of vaccine development, India is currently in the process of developing two indigenous vaccines; Covaxin and ZyCoV-D. Both of them under Phase-I and Phase-II of human trials. The human trials for covaxin will include 1150 volunteers at eight different sites and that of ZyCoV-D will involve 1000 volunteers at five different sites.
To date, India has not signed up with any vaccine manufacturer in the world for vaccine production and distribution. The government has repeatedly said that the area of production will be thought of only after the vaccines are safely administered in the volunteers. Mr. Bhushan said, “There are multiple stakeholders within and outside the government and the Health Ministry has actively started engaging with them. COVID-19 vaccine, whenever it comes, will have to be administered on a much larger scale compared to the existing vaccines. This is something on which there is near unanimity.”
Mr. Bhushan also enlightened the press about India’s membership in GAVI. It is an organization that was founded in the year 2000 to improve the access of the children in the World’s poorest countries to new and underused vaccines. Even though India is in dire straits due to the surge in COVID-19 infections, the rise in the recovery rate and testing has given the country its second wind. However, only time will tell whether we’ll all be able to stem the tide of the COVID-19 infections or not.