As India witnessed the highest number of Covid cases in over four months, former AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria on Wednesday said the new XBB.1.16 variant could be driving the recent rise but emphasised there was no need for panic as long it does not cause severe illness and deaths.
New variants will keep coming as the virus keeps on mutating over the time and the XBB 1.16 is sort of a "new kid on the block", Guleria told PTI in an interview.
"... As long as they don't lead to severe illness, hospitalisation and deaths, it is alright because it helps in giving some degree of immunity to the population if they have mild illness," the renowned pulmonologist, who was part of the national Covid task force, said.
His comments come on a day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a high-level meeting to review the Covid situation and also took stock of the public health preparedness.
India recorded 1,134 new coronavirus cases, the highest in 138 days, while the active cases increased to 7,026, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Wednesday.The death toll has climbed to 5,30,813 with five deaths.
According to Dr Guleria, the virus evolves over time, and this happens both with Covid and influenza, and this is what is called an antigenic drift. It will gradually evolve, mutate a little bit and new variants will emerge, he added.
"If we remember when we had the Covid outbreak, it started off with Alpha, Beta, Gamma Delta and Omicron variants. "So the virus kept on changing. Luckily, if we look at what has happened in the last one year, we have got variants which are basically sub-lineages of Omicron only. So it seems the virus has stabilized a little bit, it is not changing as rapidly as it was in the past," Dr Guleria said.
On whether XBB 1.16 has the potential to drive a fresh wave of cases in the next few days, he said, "You may see a surge in number of cases" but then they may be underreported as initially people were very concerned and would get themselves tested.
"Now even if they have flu-like symptoms, most people don't get themselves tested. Some use the rapid antigen test, and even if they are positive they do not report it. So the number we are actually reporting may be less than the actual number in the community."
Dr Guleria advised that those who test positive must report the data because that helps policy makers and government to actually to know the number of cases and take a decision and plan a strategy.
"So even if we see surge, there is no need to worry, as long it does not translate into hospitalization and deaths it is alright," he said. He said there is a need for active surveillance both at hospital and community levels to find out whether there is an increase in number of cases and hospital admissions so that containment strategies and other public health measures can be implemented on time.