Pune: There is no need to formally declare Covid endemic as the disease slipped into this stage at least a year ago in India and other parts of the world, top public health experts told the media agency on Saturday.
Senior virologists Dr Gagandeep Kang and Dr T Jacob John said the world should now just accept this situation while ensuring surveillance continues for new virus variants.
Dr Kang, a professor at Christian Medical College, Vellore, said: “After the Delta wave, it was clear that getting rid of this virus would not be feasible and the only hope was prevention of severe disease with a combination of protection from prior infection, vaccination and appropriate use of antiviral drugs. This effectively put us into global endemicity, with the expectation of future surges due to new variants as we saw with Omicron.” She added that emergence of new Omicron variants is only expected as the virus finds new ways to evade immune responses.
The behaviour, she said, calls for sensible and limited surveillance which should “run in the background as the country turns to other biomedical needs”.
“Covid-19 is not done with us and is unlikely to be done with us, so we need to continue research efforts to predict what might happen,” she said.
Dr John, retired professor and head of department of clinical virology and microbiology at CMC Vellore, added that public awareness on how to live in this endemic stage should be improved with help from institutions that have been monitoring Covid. “The way forward for the country is to create a public health division with as much autonomy as space and nuclear energy,” he said
Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, former head scientist of epidemiology and communicable diseases at ICMR, urged caution, saying while Omicron and its variants were triggering milder symptoms and low hospitalisation, numbers have to really decrease further.
“Even as we move towards endemicity, we are not really sure we are assessing the correct numbers as many [people] are not even coming forward to test,” he said.
As for the central government’s recent decision to not procure more vaccine doses – citing adequate reserves in states – Dr Kang said it was time Covid vaccines (and boosters) were added to the national routine immunisation programme.
“While the country has offered vaccines for free through the routine immunisation programme, intended for public health needs, vaccines for purchase have also been available through the private healthcare system. So there are additional vaccines which are licensed for protection against disease and like the shots against chickenpox or influenza, Covid vaccines should be treated along similar lines,” she said.
Newer or variant-specific jabs are still new territories and she said that she’s not convinced they are really needed in the current scenario.
On whether Covid jabs should continue to be free at government sites, Dr Kang said vaccines should be free if they are obtained through governmental immunisation programmes and to be paid for, if not.
Dr Gangakhedkar said free Covid jabs should continue at some sites to ensure better access for the poor.