Even as genome scientists analyse the role of recombinant coronavirus variants in the recent increase in Covid cases in parts of India, senior public health experts and doctors have opined that the increase is more likely to be a ripple than a wave.
“We are working expeditiously to identify the actual causes soon. The recombinant variants, a combination of two previous strains of the virus, and the Omicron variants are the possible triggers,” said Saumitra Das of INSACOG, a national consortium of more than 50 institutions involved in genome sequencing, on Tuesday evening.
According to Das, more social gatherings along with less Covid-appropriate behaviour could well be the significant factors behind the increase but an important role of the recombinants cannot be ruled out yet.
“Multiple recombinant variants are under the scanner, out of which XE is a recombinant involving two omicron variants and in XD, the spike protein of the BA.1 Omicron variant replaces the spike protein of delta and hence, might be problematic,” said Das.
While there have been reports of infection by recombinants in the country, Das called the reports “unconfirmed”.
“Recombinants are expected as #SARSCoV2 is widespread among humans and many animal species now…” Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of WHO, had recently tweeted .
“Even if the recombinants trigger a surge, they seem unlikely to become a real threat. Interestingly, though recombinant variants are known to have higher infectivity, the number of cases is not increasing that rapidly and the spread seems to be getting contained, which indicates that the vaccines are working against them,” said Dhrubajyoti Chatterjee, a virologist and vice-chancellor of Sister Nivedita University.
Chatterjee feels that the virus “is becoming endemic as it is being constantly maintained at a baseline level within the population”.
Public health experts and physicians treating Covid find that plausible. “There is no point in panicking. There will be ripples but another critical wave is unlikely,” said Rajib Dasgupta, a public health expert associated with Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
“Vaccines are clearly working against the variants as hospitalisations and mortality have grossly reduced for vaccinated people,” said Ajoy Sarkar, a senior Covid physician. Pulmonologist Arup Haldar echoed him.
“I was recently in England, where both the government and the people have started treating Covid like an influenza infection, as the virulence has grossly reduced,” added Sarkar.
India witnessed a spurt in Covid cases in the third week of April. The number of cases more than doubled in four days — from 949 on April 14 to 2,183 on April 17 — with a significant jump in recorded infection in Delhi. Kerala and Maharashtra, which had turned Covid hotspots earlier in the pandemic, also registered higher infections, though not as much as Delhi.
Kolkata has not seen a spurt yet. “Between April 11 and 18, we registered only 26 cases; out of which 20 were asymptomatic. On April 11, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) recorded zero cases,” said Tapan Mukherjee, senior health advisor in the KMC.