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Hong Kong’s Covid reinfection not cause for alarm, case depends on immune status, says govt

ICMR is planning a second national sero survey as results will help fine-tune India's Covid strategy, says health ministry.

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New Delhi: India has read “with interest” reports of one case of a Covid-19 reinfection in Hong Kong but there is no reason to be alarmed, Dr Balram Bhargava, secretary, department of health research under the health ministry, said Tuesday.

“We have read with interest the reports of reinfection in Hong Kong … it is one case. Reinfection can depend on several factors; one could be relating to the patient itself — how is his immunity, is he immune-compromised. It could also depend on the virus, whether it is mutating or becoming more virulent,” said Dr Bhargava, who is also the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country’s apex medical research body.

“On this disease, we are learning as we go along. It is important to understand that only one case has been reported. Reinfection is rare for viral infections. Take measles, for example. Once it affects you, you get lifelong immunity; there may be some cases of second infection but only rarely. Similarly, this is a stray example,” he added, while responding to a question from ThePrint at the daily briefing.

Bhargava went on to say it is not yet known how long immunity against Covid-19 lasts. “We do not know that as yet because the disease itself is just seven to eight months old. So we cannot really comment on how long immunity lasts. We need to closely follow it up, but there is no need to be alarmed immensely,” he said.

In his presentation, Bhargava traced how India had upped its testing game from 10 tests per day in January to 10 lakh tests last week. Of the currently hospitalised patients, 2.70 per cent are on oxygen support, 1.92 per cent are in the ICU and 0.29 per cent are on ventilators, said Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan, who was also present at the briefing.

Among the dead, 69 per cent were men and 31 per cent were women, and about 51 per cent of all deaths occurred in people aged above 60 years. One per cent of deaths were of people below 17 years, another one per cent was among the 18-25 age group, 11 per cent were aged between 26 and 44, and 36 per cent were in the 45-60 years age group.

Also read: 80% Covid patients in India are asymptomatic, health ministry analysis finds

Sero surveys

Both secretaries said that the sero surveys conducted at the national and state levels — to assess the presence of antibodies in a person’s blood — provide important policy-level inputs that help fine-tune strategy. This is why the ICMR is now preparing to start its second national-level sero survey even though the results of the first one conducted in April are yet to be published.

“The ICMR sero survey publication is in process and should appear by this week in IJMR (Indian Journal of Medical Research). It has gone through two rounds of peer review and will definitely be published this week,” Bhargava said.

However, while several sero surveys have happened around the country, there has been no assessment so far of the presence of neutralising antibodies and T cell responses.

T cells are a type of blood cells which are emerging as very important players in Covid immunity and may even cobble together an immune response to a hitherto unknown virus based on previous exposure to those from the same family.

Also read: T cells, B cells and the range of the human body’s immune response — A simple decoder


The officials further said that there are three vaccines in India in the stage of clinical trials and three others in the preclinical stages.

“The vaccine by Oxford University and Serum Institute is in phases IIB and III and will be given to 1,700 people. The vaccines by Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila are about to enter phase II. These are two dose vaccines — the second dose is given 14-28 days after the first and the immune response is assessed in two to four weeks,” Dr Bhargava said. He was replying to a question about vaccine timelines.

On the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, Bhushan said that the governments of India and Russia are in touch. “Some data has been shared and some more is awaited,” he said. ThePrint had reported this on Monday.

Also read: These are the 3 vaccines Modi says India is ready to produce after go-ahead from scientists

Antigen tests

Of the tests being done in the country, currently, about 30-40 per cent are antigen tests, Dr Bhargava said. “Some states have found antigen tests simpler, so they have reduced RT-PCR tests by 2-3 per cent … the national average (of antigen tests) would be 30-40 per cent,” he added.

Asked if young and asymptomatic people are driving the epidemic, he said “irresponsible people who do not wear masks and do not practise social distancing are driving the epidemic”.

Bhushan refused to comment about the ongoing controversy about NEET and JEE saying  the question has been legally settled by no less than the Supreme Court. The standard operating procedures drawn up by the ministry, he added, had been shared with the test organisers.

Also read: Thermal screening, isolation rooms — how govt plans to hold NEET, JEE Mains amid Covid risks


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