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Home Specials Interviews Exclusive: Prof M Vidyasagar, chair of COVID Supermodel Committee on 'SUTRA' model, second and...

Exclusive: Prof M Vidyasagar, chair of COVID Supermodel Committee on ‘SUTRA’ model, second and third wave, vaccine hesitancy and more

"The third wave will, unfortunately, hit the younger people and even children. We need to think of the virus as a big bully which attacks the most defenceless first and then changes the target. The wave can be expected from six to eight months from now", said professor Vidyasagar

The COVID-19 pandemic that gripped the world, with millions of deaths and several more being affected, has affected India severely as well. When India managed to battle first wave effectively, the world wondered how India managed to ‘escape’ without more dead bodies piling up. With the second wave, a large part of the world finally for what they wanted. The second wave did hit India with an intensity that was perhaps unforeseeable to the people.

However, understanding just how prepared India was for the second wave and whether India managed to actually fight the second wave effectively becomes important in the face of criticism regarding the ‘mishandling’ of the situation.

Professor M Vidyasagar, IIT Hyderabad and Chair of India’s Covid Supermodel Committee spoke to OpIndia spoke about India’s handling of the pandemic and the ‘Sutra’ model.

How prepared were we for the second wave of the pandemic? Were we able to predict the numbers considering the second wave hit us much hard than the first one?

If you judge by the events, we were not prepared at all and complacent at all levels from the government to the people’s level. I think people thought that while the world had already experienced 2 to 3 waves, we were magically immune to it. We went around wearing no masks, without any precautions thinking nothing will happen to us.

In the first wave, while the implementation was left on the states, the strategies were developed by the Centre which I think worked really well whereas in the second wave even when it was not at its peak, the strategies were left to individual states so this led to a great variety of responses with varying responses. 

With the peak in September last year, around 10-11 million had contracted the virus and as per the Sutra model, 50 times of that number were asymptomatic and not detected so one cay say half a billion of the population was infected and therefore immune for a while. With the passage of time, their immunity eroded and they were back to square one. 

People also stopped following the (Covid-19) guidelines. With 11 million people infected in the first wave and 14 million infected since March 01, 2021, considering that to be the start of the second wave, while the difference in number is not much, the intensity varied for various reasons.

The first reason being the concentration of the cases as the first wave lasted for about four months but the rise of new cases in the second wave was extremely steep. 

Next, the first wave predominantly hit the less affluent section of the society whereas the second wave hit the affluent section or people who escaped the first wave so to say. 

This wave also affected the younger lot who were barely touched by the pandemic in the first wave with reports of even children being infected.

How well did we manage to predict the daily new Covid-19 cases? 

We made a presentation in early April to the government where we said the peak will arrive between May 15-17 with about 1 lakh cases a day. While we were accurate with the dates, we were completely off in predicting the numbers as the parameters varied very quickly. We kept recalibrating our Sutra model and by the time we reached the peak our variables stabilized. 

Prof Vidyasagar also took us through the Sutra model ( developed by the committee for charting the trajectory of Covid-19 in India, gave an insight into daily data vis-a-vis the prediction made for each state and district. Prof Vidyasagar said, “This is the kind of data that the states want where they can see the deviation (of reported cases) from the prediction for each district which will help them take immediate on-ground actions.”

Screengrab of the online interview

Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a rise in misinformation with publications and organizations coming up with their own ‘models’ to ascertain that the numbers reported by the government are not real. How can we deal with this?

Reports suggesting 5 times or 10 times the reported numbers cannot be called a model. A model should be able to give predictions and logic to the pattern and statements. When that is not available it is just a guess. In order for it to be a scientific statement, it should either be verifiable or refutable. Now if someone says the number of deaths is 2 times than reported, how do you prove it? Someone else will come and say no it is 5 times. When the so-called experts cannot agree amongst themselves then it is just a prediction and not a model. 

How do you think vaccine hesitancy can be tackled? And if the vaccination drive and process could have been managed differently? 

India has never been a vaccine-hesitant country, unlike the US. The hesitancy is being manufactured deliberately. There is a graph going around which shows a rise in cases with the inoculation numbers going up resulting in the false assumption that the rise in cases is because of the vaccine. But if you think of it, the vaccination centres are poorly organized and the congregation of people at these centres might be a reason for it but it is ridiculous to say that vaccine is causing a rise in cases. 

Talking about the efforts put in by the government to communicate about the vaccine and mitigate the hesitancy, Prof Vidyasagar opines that the government has not done enough. He suggested that the government should have come up with an extensive advertisement campaign along with volunteers on-ground talking to people about the vaccine. 

He also suggested that there is a need to ramp up the vaccination drive in moderating the third bump. 

Have we predicted the third wave, the severity and when is it expected? 

The third wave will, unfortunately, hit the younger people and even children. We need to think of the virus as a big bully which attacks the most defenceless first and then changes the target. The wave can be expected from six to eight months from now. 

Talking about the precautions, Prof Vidyasagar informed that we cannot let the lockdown fatigue set in as we saw between the two waves. 

Informing about the committee’s latest study, Prof Vidyasagar said that a study is being done to analyze the different lockdown models implemented by states to assess which lockdown model worked the best. As the paper has not yet been released, Prof Vidyasagar just revealed that shutting everything down and cramping people in a two to three hours window is not the best model as it increases the contact rate between people while we should be focusing on preventing congregations. 

Ending the discussion, Prof Vidyasagar advised, “Don’t let your guards down.”

The full interview can be viewed here:

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