A ticket to solve your queries: Dr. Pavithra Venkatagopalan

If vaccines were deadly, we would not be in a small pox free or a nearly polio free world.

Dr. Pavithra Venkatagopalan

Dr. Pavithra Venkatagopalan worked on the Coronavirus assembly for her doctoral dissertation at the Arizona State University. She heads her own NABH certified diagnostic center in Chennai and Bangalore. With the recent emergence of the COVID-19 infection, she has seen a lot of myths and untruths in the form of WhatsApp forwards. She was invited by the Tamil Nadu Science Forum on National Science Day at the Anna Centenary Library to give the CV Raman lecture. Recently, she has been the recipient of the Healthcare Heroes awards in the Myth Busters Category by My Health India and the Jaagran Media Group.

What is the ultimate motive for choosing to study about the Coronavirus Assembly and Microbiology? 

Ever since I can remember, I have always been fascinated by Microbiology. I remember my parents buying a photo atlas book called Microbes. I knew this was the right direction for me. At the time, Biotechnology was trending and Genetics, Jurassic Park, modifying DNA were all so thrilling.  By the time I finished my B Tech at Center for Biotechnology, Anna University, the SARS coronavirus was discovered and controlled by 2004. When I applied for graduate school, the Coronavirus field was considered fashionable and had good funding. That helped me choose the field of the Coronavirus Assembly. 

The number of people turning up for vaccine shots in Chennai has not been high. And, there are some who are administering vaccine shots without getting themselves registered on the CoWIN portal. What is your piece of advice on the two?

This is unfortunate. The faith in the vaccines should be high. After all, the vaccine is safer than the virus itself. As for exploiting the COWIN system, I am not aware of the intricacies of the process.

A lot of people have a fear of losing their lives, right after getting vaccinated. What do you think should be done to evade the existing fear within people?

If vaccines were deadly, we would not be in a small pox free or a nearly polio free world. A lot of noise is created by the anti-vaxxers, or I like to call them pro-disease people. They believe that there is something called natural immunity and artificial immunity. Think about it, if we had ‘natural immunity,’ most diseases would have disappeared on their own. Yet they haven’t. We needed vaccines to reduce the number of infections. Vaccines are tested systematically for their safety and efficacy. Today, vaccine design takes into account not only their ability to provide immunity, but they are designed to be as safe to us as possible. Your chances of getting into a car accident or being struck by lightning is higher than death by a vaccine.

A lot of people have taken being ‘immune during the pandemic’ way too seriously. There were different types of home remedies that were religiously followed. What do you think are the possible ill-effects that can be caused to such remedies and what are their benefits, if any?

Home remedies have not undergone systematic testing. They are what is called – anecdotal evidence. This is a good place to start thinking something is good, but unless it is tested and proven statistically, it is better than no remedy. It cannot be taken seriously. There is also the belief that anything natural is safe. Snake venom is natural, it’s not safe. Even water in extremely high doses can cause death. There is the belief that home remedies (for covid and other infections) can work, but in a lot of cases, that delays medical care and by the time a person gets that medical attention, it may be too late. As for benefits, there may be some minor benefits, but it has not been studied and established.

Having won the ‘Healthcare Hero Award’ under the ‘Myth Buster Category,’ there is information that ‘COVAXIN’ has come into the market without passing the Phase III trials. In such a case, do you think that ‘COVAXIN’ is effective against the new coronavirus strain from the UK or is it a myth that is prevailing, with regards to the trial?

I have not seen evidence for ‘COVAXIN’ being effective or not against COVID or the new variants from the UK or South America. Unless I see the evidence, I cannot comment. There is new information that the Oxford vaccine may not be effective against the South African variant. But that doesn’t mean we should not take the vaccine. Even if we can get protection against the circulating variants, we can prevent new variants from coming. In the meantime, effective vaccines against the South African variant can be developed.

Even if one has a viral in the due course of the pandemic, one mistakes it for having contracted the virus, which creates panic in the patient. How can that be avoided?

By taking the PCR test!

What is the actual difference between the symptoms of COVID-19 and the new coronavirus strain from the UK? Will it take some more time to prepare for another vaccine or the current vaccines will help cover up for it?

COVID-19 is a coronavirus made up of RNA and proteins. One of the proteins is the Spike protein. This protein is essential for starting viral infection. So, the first protein the body sees is spike. Antibodies are made against the spike protein. The new variants, in the UK and South Africa have small changes in the spike protein. Whether these changes cause a huge difference in developing antibodies, we do not know. There is some preliminary data to say that the Moderna vaccine is quite effective against the South African strain and the Oxford vaccine is not. It is likely that with continuous vaccination, and development of newer vaccines will ultimately help us eliminate the virus.