The next two weeks are going to be crucial in India’s efforts to tackle the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19), says former Health Secretary JVR Prasada Rao.

India cannot afford to have Covid-19 spread in the community, he told BusinessLine , stressing the need to increase testing of people and identification of those who need to be quarantined. It is a daunting task for any administration, he agreed, to deal with a virus that spreads fast, though mortality rates “are like any other flu”.

The “comforting” angle, he added, is that a good number of people with the virus can stay at home and recover. So testing is key to identifying them, he added.

Lauding the Centre’s move to restrict flights from countries reporting high numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases, Rao said the administration also needs to have a more permanent view on isolation wards and not just react at the time of a crisis. District hospitals, for instance, can have dedicated isolation wards for infection control. And this could kick in every time an emergency arose, which in present times is rather frequent.

Combination of drugs

Having worked closely with India’s National Aids Control Organisation as its former Director, Rao adviced caution on the use of anti-retrovirals (ARVs or HIV/AIDS medicines) to tackle Covid-19. He was referring to the use of these drugs, along with anti-viral oseltamivir (used to treat influenza) and chloroquine (used in malaria) in treating Covid-19 in an Italian couple at Jaipur’s SMS Hospital.

ARVs are good in an emergency, he said. However, they have to be given under strict doctor discretion, and the Indian Council of Medical Research needs to have guidelines for their use, he added.

But as companies are looking to re-purpose existing drugs and, on the day the first human volunteer got her shot of the investigational vaccine in the US against Covid-19, Rao said time is of the essence, as internationally efforts are being directed to tackle the virus that has infected over 1.73 lakh people globally, and resulted in a death toll of over 7,000.