Will the lockdown help chase away the new coronavirus?

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The haze and the smoke in cities have given way to clear skies and clean crisp air, and while people in some parts of Punjab woke up to previously unseen views of snow-capped Himalayan mountain tops from their windows, others noticed dolphins frolicking in the once busy docks of Mumbai. India’s 40 days long national lockdown in response to the Covid -19 pandemic, has had effects on all walks of life, though in very different ways.

Large parts of the country, especially urban areas have hit the snooze button. The Central and State governments are in the process of lifting the lockdown in phases. While some sectors have already started refunctioning, it will soon be time for all of us to make our way back to work. Will our lives go back to normal? Would India have successfully chased away the deadly coronavirus? Sadly, the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is not going away anytime soon. It’s like a djiin that cannot be forced back into its bottle. 

So how long is the COVID-19 pandemic and the new virus going to last? Unfortunately, there is no definite answer to this question yet.  The 2002 outbreak of SARS in China, also caused by a related coronavirus, infected thousands, and caused several deaths. But its spread was contained, and the outbreak controlled by putting in place stringent measures of quarantine and isolation. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is new to humankind, and we are just beginning to understand its biology and how it spreads. It is also much more infectious and spreads more rapidly through touch and close physical proximity with an infected individual, in comparison to its 2002 counterpart. What makes COVID-19 an even tougher challenge is that many individuals affected by it have been observed to show no symptoms of the infection. This makes it difficult to identify, isolate and treat them.

Meanwhile, a lot of information on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, some true and others unverified,  are circulating amongst us- hot humid weather conditions will slow down the spread of the virus, only old people will be affected, anti-malarial and anti-HIV drugs can be used for treatment. Which of these claims is true will be clear only after rigorous investigations by virologists, epidemiologists and public health experts.  As long as the virus continues to persist, even in small pockets, the resumption of movement of people or congregations of small or large groups, can trigger new viral outbreaks.

Researchers from Imperial College London’s Rapid Action Team in their recent report explain two possible ways of overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic- either by suppression or by mitigation. Suppression involves implementing measures such as those put in place by most countries today, including India, to reduce the spread of the infection-quarantine, self-isolation, lockdown and sealing of regions and areas where many people have been reported to have been infected with COVID19. Mitigation on the other hand involves achieving herd immunity, where a significant part of the population contracts the infection and develops immunity to the virus, thereby limiting its spread. However, both these options have their limitations when it comes to dealing with the pandemic on ground, especially in a densely populated country like ours.

Given the challenges in having to sustain a prolonged lockdown, an effective vaccine might be the only way of preventing more and more people from getting infected. Though the SARS-CoV-2 virus belongs to the same family of viruses that cause the common flu and influenza, the vaccines developed for these have found to have no effect on the novel coronavirus. Scientists around the globe are now in a race to find a vaccine that would help put an end to this pandemic. However, developing a vaccine takes time. Experts have estimated that it would take us a minimum of 18 months to develop an effective vaccine and conduct clinical trials. Until then, it is in our own best interest that we put on hold any plans that would involve travelling or meeting people in large groups. To stay safe, we will still need to continue the precautionary guidelines prescribed by the medical fraternity and government bodies.

A few years down the road, we may be able to look back to identify which of the currently implemented measures to check the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus worked and those that didn’t. Perhaps by then COVID-19 may become less virulent or a milder infection such as the common flu, recurring but non-fatal. But for now, and the foreseeable future until an effective vaccine is developed, we must proceed with extreme vigilance and caution.

Precautionary steps to follow to prevent contracting and spreading coronavirus infection.

  1. Avoid greeting people by shaking hands and/or hugging.
  2. Maintain a physical distance of at least 6 feet from others.
  3. Wash hands with soap frequently.
  4. Disinfect frequently touched or used surfaces (laptops, phones, doorknobs, handles etc.)
  5. Avoid meeting people in large groups.
  6. Avoid travelling.
  7. Self-isolate if unwell.
  8. In case you or people around you exhibit symptoms such as a high fever, cough, sore throat or difficulty in breathing, consult a doctor and get yourself tested for COVID-19.

 
Ipsita Herlekar is a Science Communication Coordinator International Center for Theoretical Sciences-TIFR Bangalore.