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One of America’s most highly regarded professors of Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Global Public Health, whose mathematical models have been closely and accurately tracking the COVID-19 trajectory in India since the start of the pandemic, has said “nationally the worst is over” as far as the second wave is concerned and, with specific reference to Kerala, she adds “we’re at the end of a long tunnel and we can see the light”.
In a 23-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Professor Bhramar Mukherjee of the University of Michigan, also said that her mathematical models do not foresee a big third wave. She said there will be small local and regional outbreaks, what she calls bumps, but they will not involve numbers anything like the massive number of cases India saw in April and May.
Mukherjee said that at the moment the national R number is 0.85 and for Kerala the R number is 0.8.
Speaking about the future nationwide trajectory of COVID-19, Mukherjee said: “If we map case counts today to the recent past then you will see that in January this year we had 18-20,000 cases a day. It fell to 10,000 a day by February and thereafter started to rise. Do we expect that to happen again? No. The worst is over.”
Asked how concerned she was by the fact that 34 districts, across 9 states and Union Territories, have a positivity rate of at least 10% and a further 28 districts, across 12 states and Union Territories, have a positivity rate between 5 and 10%, Mukherjee said she was not particularly concerned because the overall nationwide positivity is 1.5% and going down.
Speaking about reports from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai that the R number in four major cities – Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Delhi – keeps popping above 1.0 and then dips below only to go up again, Mukherjee said this was more a reflection of the fact that when you deal with a small number of cases – as in Delhi – and the daily tally increases from 30 to 40 it can have a disproportionate impact on the R number.
Speaking in greater detail about predictions made in June and July that India would experience a third wave, which so far hasn’t happened and looks unlikely, Mukherjee said: “Our models never engaged in imminent third wave prediction.” She seemed to suggest “the certainty about a third wave which was being expressed in June and July” is baffling.
Asked if she would be worried if, despite the fact, 73% of the adult population has received a single jab and nearly 30% both, India, in the present circumstances, fails to meet its target of fully vaccinating the adult population, Mukherjee said she would be worried because “we have vulnerable pockets of population”.
Speaking about the festive season, she said since large gatherings are going to be unavoidable, her advice is people must wear masks, particularly when they are in large gatherings and particularly when you don’t know the vaccination status of others.
Finally, Mukherjee said she does not share the confidence expressed in earlier interviews by Professor Soumya Swaminathan of the WHO and Professor Gagandeep Kang of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, that by the end of 2022 COVID-19 could convert from its present pandemic status to an endemic status and at that point, it will be no greater a threat then influenza.
Mukherjee said there are too many unknown variables to say this with any certainty. She also said she could not accept any comparison between COVID-19 and influenza because COVID-19 often leads to long COVID, which is not the case with influenza.
Watch the full interview here.