Kiran Mazumdar Shaw in conversation with ThePrint Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta 

India cannot afford to extend the Covid-19 lockdown any further, and people need to start getting back to work in a phased manner, Indian entrepreneur and biotechnology pioneer Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw has said.

In conversation with ThePrint Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta Thursday, Mazumdar-Shaw said the nationwide lockdown has helped save lives and it is now time to “save livelihoods”.

“India has done a phenomenal job of the quarantine, the lockdown and zoning measures, and we have saved lives. Now it’s time to save livelihoods,” added Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director of the Bengaluru-based Biocon Limited.

The paranoia surrounding Covid-19 is fuelled by the fact that the West has not been able to deal with it, she said, adding that Asia has handled the situation much better.

The lockdown so far, along with all the quarantining and containment efforts, has slowed down the virus to an extent where the number of cases is doubling every 10 days, Mazumdar-Shaw said.

Discussing how the lockdown could be eased after its 3 May deadline, the entrepreneur said the focus should be on protecting the vulnerable people, including the elderly.“When we lift the lockdown, people over 60 must be protected. But the majority of the workforce is below the age of 60 — so we can go back to work without feeling so scared,” she added.

Protective measures like wearing masks and screening people in public places, she said, should continue even after May 3. “I don’t think malls and other places should be immediately opened after the lockdown, or that big sporting events should take place, but people should be allowed to start getting back to work,” Mazumdar-Shaw added. Once the lockdown is lifted, she said, testing should be scaled up among the general population through serological tests (for example, antibody tests, and pool testing).

The large-scale data thus generated, she added, will help India get “more and more convinced that we indeed have been able to tame the virus”.

‘Paranoia has set in because of West’

While the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) is just as infectious as those involved in previous coronavirus outbreaks — the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS, 2002-04) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS, 2012) — it is much less lethal, Mazumdar-Shaw said.

“MERS had reported a 34 per cent death rate whereas SARS reported 10 per cent. For Covid-19, the death rate is less than 2 per cent,” she said.

What makes the virus so scary is that it has been lethal for the western economies, she added.

Although it originated in China, Covid-19 has been far more disastrous in Europe and the US, with the latter now accounting for over 8 lakh cases and 40,000 deaths — the highest in the world — according to WHO data. In comparison, China has recorded just over 84,300 Covid-19 cases and 4,600 deaths.

“The spread of the infection is so fast that it has decimated many economies around the globe. Western population has not been able to deal with the onslaught of Covid-19,” Mazumdar-Shaw said.

“The paranoia that has set in is because of the fact that Europe, the US and the UK have not been able to deal with the pandemic.”

Asia, however, has dealt with the pandemic much better, she said. The data from India, she added, shows the percentage of people testing positive is much lower — only one in 23 people (4.4 per cent) tested is diagnosed with Covid-19 infection.

In comparison, this metric stands at over 19 per cent in the US and over 18 per cent in the UK, she said.

Other countries in Asia are also recording much fewer deaths, she added, saying a very small percentage of the hospital beds set aside for Covid-19 patients have been put to use.

“The world was short of ventilators. In India, we have used less than 100 ventilators cumulatively,” she said.

People feel that if they test positive, she added, it immediately becomes a matter of life and death.

“I want to say that most of the people who are getting discharged from the hospitals are saying that they got over the virus very easily. Of course, there are cases where the disease becomes severe, but those people are either elderly or have comorbidities,” Mazumdar-Shaw said.

‘Asians possibly have better immunity’

Mazumdar-Shaw said Asians possibly had better immunity because they had had greater exposure to zoonotic viruses coming out of China, as compared to populations in the West.

The devastating effect of coronavirus in western nations, she added, could be attributed to their limited exposure to zoonotic viruses.

She claimed India had another advantage in its relatively younger population.

“The western population is an ageing population, whereas 90 per cent of India’s population is below the age of 60,” Mazumdar-Shaw said.

Eighty per cent of those dying from Covid-19 around the world are above the age of 60, she added.

Weighing in on speculation that India’s low Covid-19 numbers could be the result of inadequate testing, Mazumdar-Shaw said she fully trusted the government to not fudge data.

“We might be under-reporting by conducting very few tests, but it is not possible to hide too many deaths,” she added, saying there had been no unexplained surge in deaths around the country as compared to last year.

‘Need to remove stigma around Covid-19’

During the interview, Mazumdar-Shaw also emphasised the need to dilute the paranoia and stigma around Covid-19.

If someone tests positive after the lockdown, she said, they should be quarantined instead of the entire place of work being closed down.

The notion that an entire factory or hospital has to shut down if even one employee tests positive creates anxiety among the employers and deters them from getting their workers tested in the first place, she added. This notion is what is causing people to mistreat healthcare workers, she said.

Promising therapies 

Mazumdar-Shaw also spoke about the several drugs and therapies that are being touted as potential coronavirus cures around the world. Hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that some have cited as a possible cure, is showing chequered results, she said, adding that  plasma therapy and the experimental drug remdesivir are showing promise.

“So far, the data is looking promising for remdesivir because it is designed for an RNA virus, and Covid-19 is caused by an RNA virus, so it could work,” she added.

Explaining plasma therapy, Mazumdar-Shaw said, “It is more like a vaccine where the body is given antibodies of a recovered person. It’s like giving the ammunition to the body to start fighting against the virus.”

She added that a major takeaway of the Covid-19 crisis is that the world has not invested in treatments for infectious diseases.

“Most of the investment has been done in non-communicable diseases. Now, the world will realise that it has done a huge disservice to itself by not focusing on infectious diseases,” she said.

The article was first published in The Print on 24 April, 2020.

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