On 16 January 2021, the world’s biggest vaccination programme against SARS-coV-2 started in India, with healthcare and other frontline workers immunised in the first phase. Now phase three has started and almost 60 million doses have been administered, mostly to frontline workers and people above the age of 60. The new Covid-19 vaccines Covishield and Covaxin, developed by the Serum institute of India and by Bharat Biotech, respectively, seem to be remarkably good at preventing serious illness. But sharp rise of news cases in the last one month, including in our Jammu and Kashmir, has been recorded. Despite the mass vaccination drive, the caseload is increasing by the day at an alarming rate. A new and highly infectious mutant Covid variant was found first in the United Kingdom, then in South Africa, and now in India. It can complicate our battle against this dreadful virus and may render the vaccines less effective. Continuous mutations of the virus from host to host are a cause of concern for all of us.
People who were vaccinated and those who are going to be vaccinated in coming days are thinking of throwing their masks away, ignoring Covid related protocols, and living like they were living before Covid-19. This can bring havoc in coming days. At this time, we do not have evidence that these two vaccines limit the transmission of the virus. The research is unclear on exactly how well they stop the virus from taking root in an immunised person’s nose and from there spreading to others. Second, we do not know exactly how long one remains immune to Covid-19 after being vaccinated. Moreover, the old Covid strains found within Covid positive patients have developed a number of worrisome mutations in many countries, including a new Indian strain in 18 states of the country, as was revealed a few days before by the Health ministry of India.
According to immunologists of USA and India, the new mutated strains can mutate easily and can escape from body’s surveillance mechanism and in theory could allow the virus to spread more. Vaccinated people may still be able to transmit the virus, even though they do not display any symptoms. “We know now the vaccines can protect, but what we haven’t had enough time to really understand is – does it protect from spreading?” said Avery August, professor of immunology at Cornell University. That is because the SARS-CoV-2 virus may still colonise the respiratory tract, even as systemic immune cells protect the overall body from the disease it causes – Covid-19.
Hold on to your mask(s) for the foreseeable future. Right now, there are several unknowns, which make mask-wearing and social distancing important to protect the wider community. First, scientists do not know how Covid-19 vaccines may protect against asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (as explained above). There are promising signs – but research remains incomplete. Researchers also do not know how long Covid-19 vaccines may protect people from the virus. Scientists will also be closely watching how evolutionary changes in the virus or variants impact the effectiveness of vaccines.
According to famous immunologist Paul Duprex, director of the centre for vaccine research at the University of Pittsburgh, ‘’the more hosts/humans this virus infects, the more chances it has to replicate and potentially mutate.” There will be an increase in transmission contacts due to the perception of vaccine-acquired immunity and the notion that vaccination will prevent transmission. Continued compliance with non-pharmaceutical preventive measures is essential, especially when many are experiencing Covid-19 fatigue and most people have gotten used to the idea that other diseases can be stopped with a single pill or shot.
In Kashmir valley, another wave of virus seems to have appeared in the last few days. New cases are rising exponentially. On average, 12-15 cases are being reported daily with moderate to severe conditions. These fresh cases have set off alarm bells in Jammu and Kashmir. A three-fold increase in number of new cases indicates that J&K is in the grip of a second wave. On another side, high tourist influx into the valley has become another challenge for the local administration to prevent entry of new mutated strains which have been detected in eighteen states of the country. Our government has taken steps at different fronts and is doing its best to keep the situation under control, but we the citizens of Kashmir should take note of the severity of the situation and must follow the safety procedures and other guidelines provided by health experts from time to time. To save lives of millions of our citizens and to keep education and other sectors running smoothly in our valley, we must adhere to Covid-19 SOPs for our own welfare and also for the safety of the whole nation.
The best we can do to control the virus’ transmission is wearing masks, and trying to become habitual of these things for the next few years, until the virulence decreases towards the human immune system. Immunologists across the world believe that there is a need to learn to live with the virus and the pandemic may end but Covid -19 may re-emerge as a seasonal virus like other flu viruses. Therefore I would like to suggest to each and every citizen of my valley whether you have got vaccinated or not, you must adhere to Covid-19 SoPs like wearing masks, particularly when going outside, and maintain social distance, sanitise hands, avoid closed-door gatherings, so that transmission of new mutant variants can be prevented.
—The writer is a student of Immunology and Natural Medicine at School of Biological Sciences, University of Kashmir.