Watch | 'Delaying COVID Boosters Could Result in 5% More Deaths Than Otherwise': Top Virologist

In an interview for The Wire, Shahid Jameel has said that there is no reason to believe that Omicron would behave differently in India compared to how it has behaved in Europe and South Africa.

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In an interview that will undoubtedly worry many people and could disturb the government, one of India’s top virologists Shahid Jameel has said, quoting a study done by Imperial College London and published on Thursday, that if boosters are not immediately given to the elderly and the immunocompromised there could be 5% more deaths than otherwise.

In an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, Jameel, speaking from Oxford, said the Imperial College study shows that after two jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccine (Covishield in India) protection against severe disease caused by Omicron is only 20% while protection against death is only 30%. After a booster, protection against severe disease rises to 80% and against death to 88%.

So, as Jameel pointed out, the Imperial College study clearly shows that without a booster two jabs of AstraZeneca (Covishield) provide very poor protection against severe disease and death caused by Omicron.

Jameel said that the same Imperial College study shows that, without a booster, protection by two jabs of AstraZeneca (Covishield) against infection from Omicron is just 3%. However, after a booster, protection against infection by Omicron goes up to 39% while against Delta, it goes up to 81%.

In a 37-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Prof. Jameel said there is no reason to believe Omicron would behave differently in India compared to how it has behaved in Europe and South Africa. India is not unique or exceptional, he said.

This means when Omicron starts to spread, cases will rise exponentially. He pointed out that even if you look at the data behind the present 150 cases of Omicron in India, the doubling time is three days.

Jameel pointed out that only 61% of the full population of the country have had one vaccination and as little as 40% of the full population has had two. This means 60% of India is not adequately vaccinated against infection by Omicron.

He also said that research done in South Africa clearly shows that neutralising antibodies after two doses of Pfizer sees a 40-fold reduction in the case of Omicron. This will apply to AstraZeneca (Covishield) as well.

The two points above clearly show that India’s vaccination levels do not provide credible protection against infection by Omicron.

Jameel also pointed out that India’s sero-positivity rate of 68% will not provide sufficient protection against reinfection by Omicron. Studies done by Juliet Pulliam in South Africa show that Omicron is three times more likely to create reinfection compared to Beta and Delta.

Separately, Jameel said Omicron is likely to produce five times more breakthrough infections compared to Delta.

Jameel pointed out that if Omicron spreads exponentially in India, even though the illness it causes may be mild, a large number of people will get infected. If a fraction of that number needs hospitalisation, that fraction will still be in absolute terms a large number. As he put it, a fraction of a large number is still also a large number. That, in turn, will put pressure on India’s health system – hospitalisation, oxygen, ventilators and possibly medicines.

There’s a lot more in the interview with Jameel than is covered in this report. It only focuses on the immediate need for boosters as well as the poor levels of protection provided against infection, severe disease and death by two jabs of Covishield without boosters.

Jameel also spoke about which booster should be given, the need to reduce the gap between two doses of Covishield, the need to immediately fully vaccinate sizeable percentages of people over the age of 60 who haven’t got second jabs and the need to vaccinate children.

Jameel was also critical of the fact that experts on Indian committees are not doing enough to keep themselves abreast of the new science, which is emerging almost every day, on the different variants of Coronavirus and how vaccines and natural immunity fare against them.

So there’s a lot more in the interview than has been covered here. This precis is recounted from memory but is not inaccurate. Please see the full interview to understand all the many different points that Shahid Jameel makes.