A former Harvard epidemiologist says getting vaccinated now is a hedge against the new COVID-19 strain as well

A former Harvard epidemiologist says getting vaccinated now is a hedge against the new COVID-19 strain as well
Representative imageTOI
  • Epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding stresses the importance for as many people to get their shots now because the new strain could prove to be more disastrous than the current COVID-19 strain.
  • Since the list of exemptions during lockdowns is quite vast they tend to be only somewhat effective.
  • "While wearing a mask and sanitising and washing your hand is vital, I personally feel that the most critical thing is ventilation."

The primary focus around the COVID-19 narrative has shifted to the vaccine from the fear around the new strain of COVID-19 ⁠— B117 SARS-CoV-2 — that had emerged in the UK.

As India gets ready to kick off its vaccination programme tomorrow, January 16 (Saturday), an epidemiologist formerly from Harvard said that it is important for as many people to get their shots now because the new strain could prove to be more disastrous than the current COVID-19 strain.

A series of tweets by renowned epidemiologist and health economist, Dr Eric Feigl-Ding — who is currently at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington DC and was previously a faculty and researcher at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School between 2004-2020 — raised some serious alarm bells and Business Insider India decided to contact him to get a primer on the new variant.
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We asked him to weigh-in on how and why is this new strain forcing countries with a comparatively robust healthcare system and much lower population to hunker down.

Tell us a little more about why this new strain has you concerned?

While most are aware that the B117 strain may be just as severe as the current strain, the fact that it is 40-80% more infectious (R +0.4 to +0.7, R represents, on average, the number of people a single infected person will pass on a virus to) would mean that the total number of people getting sick would be much more and, therefore, the number of deaths will also be much more. That would also mean that it will take much much longer for countries to contain the virus. We need to desperately bring the R-number to below 1 as soon as we can to arrest the virus.

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What is the best way to accomplish this?

The best way would be to administer the vaccine as soon as possible to as many people as possible. A complete lockdown, while the vaccination drive is on, may also be necessary. However, lockdowns are only somewhat effective, especially considering the exemption list is too vast. Say, for example, it is known that schools contribute to increasing the R number significantly (approximately +0.1 to +0.3), but some countries choose to keep schools open.

What, if anything, can be considered a positive when it comes to this new variant?

The fact that the RT-PCR test can recognise the new variant is a significant advantage. Generally, these tests look for two to three sections of the virus's genome. It just happens that the S-gene that the RT-PCR test looks for is the gene in which the mutation has occurred. The S-gene dropout is basically a PCR test that approximates the sequencing because it finds the 69-70 deletion in B117. Thus when testing via this method, while usually, three probes light up when the test detects the old SARS-CoV-2 strain, when the B117 strain is present only two of the three probes light up. This is a short-cut way to determine the virus's presence, and should it appear positive, a proper genome sequencing test is recommended.

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Another positive is that the current vaccines can combat this strain.

What, according to you, is the best way to keep the virus at bay?

While wearing a mask and sanitising and washing your hand is vital, I personally feel that the most critical thing is ventilation. Ventilation is key to making sure the virus's aerosol droplets do not hang on around you for long. So switch on fans, open windows, keep the air refreshed and if you go out, do not eat indoors, always opt to eat outside.

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