Study commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology predicts “minimal” cases by February, if festival spikes are avoided.
India passed its COVID-19 peak in September and, if current trends continue, there will be “minimal cases” by February.
These are the findings of a modelling study by a seven-member expert panel on the future course of the pandemic, which was commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology.
According to the study, India’s COVID burden is expected to be capped at 106 lakh symptomatic infections by early next year, with less than 50,000 active cases from December. There are 74 lakh confirmed cases as of Sunday, of which about 7,80,000 are active infections.
This, however, is premised on no spikes triggered by festivals or mutations in the virus aiding its spread in winter.
Scientists associated with the study said there would be no gains from lockdowns or from measures harsher than what are in place today. A complete shutdown should be considered only at sub district levels if there’s a spike that threatens local healthcare capacity, they said.
The modelling study called the “COVID-19 India National Supermodel” is the result of analysis by an expert committee consisting of mathematicians and epidemiologists. There have been several mathematical model-based projections of the pandemic by various groups within India and internationally. However, experts — and even government officials — have publicly warned they were projections meant to guide policy and not always to be taken literally.
The ICMR, in its latest sero-survey in August, had estimated that 7% of the adult population had been exposed to the virus.
The modelling committee, however, said this was an under-estimate. Citing the smaller sero-survey conducted in several cities that showed antibody prevalence between 22% to 30%, the panel said that as of August, about 14% of the population was likely infected. Extrapolating from here, nearly 30% of the country had been exposed to the virus as of Sunday, they reckon.
“The pandemic has peaked but this isn’t reason for complacence as this nice downward trend will continue only if we continue with protective measures,” said Prof. M. Vidyasagar of the IIT, Hyderabad, and chairman of the committee.
A possible reason for India already reaching its peak could be the varying susceptibility of different people to the virus, said Lt. Gen. Madhuri Kanitkar, physician and a member of the committee.
“Some people infected by the virus develop the disease and some only develop antibodies. Normally you’d expect that 60%-70% of the population would need to be infected for herd immunity. However, the “attack rate” (rate of new cases) of the virus seems to have slowed down,” Lt. Gen. Kanitkar said at a public webinar to publicise the results of the study.
A fuller explanation of the methods employed will be available in the peer-reviewed Indian Journal of Medical Research in the coming week, said Prof. Vidyasagar. He added that the committee had relied on publicly available dataset and “integrated the best of similar models” available globally.
Had there been no lockdown India would have seen symptomatic active infections peak from 40-147 lakh by June and a lockdown beginning on April 1 or May would have seen a peak of 30-40 lakh by July, Prof Vidyasagar said.
“We would have had a peak 15 times greater (no lockdown) and completely overwhelmed our health systems and anywhere between 6-25+ lakh deaths, instead of the 1 lakh that we saw till September. The lockdown was necessary and came at the right time,” he added.
“The imposition of various safety protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing etc. together with a comprehensive lockdown, has allowed India to fare better than many other countries,” the committee said in press statement.
“The existing personal safety protocols need to continue in full measure. Otherwise we will see a sharp rise in infections. Avoiding congestion especially in closed spaces and special care of those above 65 years and children is even more significant. Persons with co-morbidities need to be extra cautious,” the statement said.
With dramatic declines expected in December and the government underlining that a vaccine would likely be available by March, Lt. Gen. Kanitkar added that a vaccine would still be useful particularly for healthcare workers and the old and those most vulnerable who’ve been “confined to homes and unable to move around more freely.”