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Omicron originates 3rd wave, but does not use data from other countries for Indian trends (CCMB chief)

Hyderabad: The Omicron variant is behind the current third wave of Covid-19 infections, but data should not be extrapolated from other countries to explain trends in India, said Vinay K. Nandicoori, director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB).

In an interview with ThePrint, the head of the Hyderabad-based institute, under the aegis of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), said data extrapolation would not be effective as it reacts differently to one population to another.

Many factors — such as population, infection rate and number of people vaccinated — are different in each country, Nandicoori said.

He also spoke of the need for “hybrid immunity” studies to assess the exact level of protection against Covid variants among the population, and stressed that the population must learn to live with the virus, which is likely to remain, similar to the virus of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1921.

Surge “completely because of Omicron”

The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa. It has caused a massive increase in several countries, including the UK, but it would have been a ‘milder’ infection leading to fewer hospital admissions.

India has seen a sharp rise in infections over the past three weeks. Wednesday, the country reported 2.5 lakh cases in the biggest one-day jump since the start of the pandemic.

Nandicoori pointed out that the Omicron variant is five times more contagious than the Delta variant, adding that understanding how new waves arrive is crucial at this time.

“The Omicron as a variant spreads five times faster than Delta. It’s not that easy to avoid it. Spread is inevitable whenever a wave comes,” he said.

“I think the surge seems to be coming because of Omicron. So right now determining whether it’s Omicron or not isn’t as important as determining how new surges come in. What kind additional mutations Omicron was able to acquire,” he said.

“Genome sequencing efforts should continue to track any variants that may emerge later. As for Omicron sequencing, it may not be very essential as Omicron is almost present all over India at the moment. I think the push is entirely due to Omicron,” Nandicoori added.

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mRNA vaccine

CCMB, in collaboration with CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, also in Hyderabad, is working on an mRNA vaccine. Amid talk of these vaccines, the CCMB director said the institute’s vaccine “will take time” and won’t help immediately. But learning in the manufacturing process will help in the future.

“At this point we know how to produce mRNA, how to package it in lipids. But all this is done at the laboratory level. They’re not made for anything bigger than that. The first thing is to successfully inject it into mice and get an immune response. This process of learning the mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 would help us for the future, not immediately for now,” Nandicoori said.

Hybrid immunity

According to Nandicoori, studies of “hybrid immunity” – the protection of people infected with the virus and then vaccinated – are the only way to detect the type of population infected with each wave.

A large number of people in India have hybrid immunity, the CCMB director said.

Asked about the pattern of people infected in each wave and those who escaped the first two waves but were infected in the third, Nandicoori said it would only be possible to assess the pattern using the study. on hybrid immunity.

“Without a proper hybrid immunity study where you actually divide the population into four parts – unvaccinated, vaccinated, infected, infected, and vaccinated – it’s hard to identify and tell which provides better protection,” he said. -he adds.

“So someone infected and vaccinated actually has three doses one way. Infection, followed by two cycles of vaccination. Hybrid immunity, three cycles of vaccination against two cycles of vaccination – these studies must be done and in a systematic way,” he said.

“For the study, patient metadata must be considered. Their age, comorbidities, etc. Once we get the data, we can look at the antibody response,” Nandicoori added.

Omicron and vaccination

Despite the drop in reported hospitalizations due to the Omicron variant, the CCMB director advised caution, asking people not to take the variant lightly as infections are high and “people are still dying from Omicron”.

Allaying concerns about whether vaccination would provide protection against Omicron or other variants in the future, Nandicoori said existing vaccination might not be very effective in neutralizing Omicron, but would certainly reduce the severity of the disease. sickness.

He also stressed that vaccination is extremely important at this stage and that boosters are just another layer of protection.

“Take the case of the United Kingdom. When Delta came to India, our vaccination rates were quite low. But the UK already had more people vaccinated, so the wave that came to the UK last year, the death rate was lower than before. Which was not the case in our country,” he said.

Vaccination is very important because although the antibodies in vaccines that are against the spike protein of the virus may not be as effective in neutralizing Omicron as in the case of other strains, what is important is that there is T-cell immunity. So in the future, if your body has seen a form of peak protein, it may possibly reduce the severity of the disease. So people should get vaccinated, he said.

Citing research articles from South Africa and other countries, the CCMB director pointed out that studies show that “the death rate, oxygen dependence and ventilator requirements” among those hospitalized in reason of Omicron are lower than those of people infected with the Delta variant.

“At the end of the day, part of our population is elderly, with comorbidities. Considering all these things, it will have an impact on the population. The death percentage seems to be lower than Delta, but people are still dying from Omicron. Also, the number of infections is higher this time around,” he said.

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Learning to live with the virus

Stressing the idea of ​​”learning to live with the virus”, Nandicoori said it would be difficult to predict how many more waves the country might see in the future.

When asked if the third wave would be the last, he ruled that out.

“The flu pandemic was between 1918 and 1920 (1921) and even now we get the flu. It is likely that over time the pandemic will take shape and begin to appear in different parts of the world at different times. It will eventually turn into something like a flu, but the virus is not going anywhere,” he said.

“It’s going to exist and it’s going to constantly evolve… If we’re vaccinated, the virus that’s selected for that is the one that can actually evade the antibody response and the immune response,” he said. “If we have drugs that treat the virus, it will try to evolve mutations so that it can overcome the inhibition by the drug. This is how evolution works.

What CCMB does

Since the pandemic broke out in 2020, CCMB has been at the forefront of genome sequencing, drug testing, validation of test methods and diagnostic kits, the institute’s director said.

In a previous interview with ThePrint in December 2020, its then-manager Rakesh Mishra predicted that India might come up with its own variant, sooner or later, given the population. This was at a time when cases of the Alpha variant were on the rise in the UK, where it was first discovered. The Delta variant that emerged later was once known as the “Indian variant”.

About 13% of sequencing in India has been done from CCMB.

The facility, which is one of the national genome sequencing laboratories, is still trying to cultivate Omicron. The institute has also developed a “primer” that can specifically recognize Omicron, but it still needs to test it on many more samples, according to Nandicoori.

“Omicron actually has quite a few mutations in the spike protein – around 32 to 36 mutations, which are used by the virus to penetrate us. Due to these mutations, existing antibodies do not effectively recognize the incoming virus. It doesn’t replicate as efficiently and wildly as the previous Delta strain, but if you have other co-morbidities even that can cause problems,” he said. noted.

CCMB is also currently working on different studies, especially on viral infections, such as a study on various aspects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, what happens when it infects cells, etc.

Asked about suggestions for escaping the virus, Nandicoori pointed to the usual – mask up, avoid gatherings and get vaccinated. “The only way to protect yourself from viruses is to completely lock yourself in but that’s not possible. So these precautions are the only way out,” he said.

(Editing by Amit Upadhyaya)

Read also : 115 deaths reported due to Omicron worldwide, including one in India, according to the Ministry of Health

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