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Official COVID-19 figures an underestimate?

Could the official COVID-19 figures in India be underestimated by a significant margin? Recent surveys by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) suggest this may be the case.

Coronavirus in world. Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. Concept of coronavirus with flag of India. Illustration of COVID-19 case count. Coronavirus pandemic in India. Active COVID-19 cases. Image credit: Image credit: quatrox / 123rf. COVID-19 vaccine illustration. New COVID-19 cases concept.
Image credit: quatrox / 123rf

Following on from a serological survey assessing antibody levels against the novel coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19) nationwide, one of the country’s leading medical agencies weighed in on the situation. More than sixty million people in India –  ten times the official figure – could have contracted the novel coronavirus, claimed the ICMR on Tuesday.

“The main conclusions from this sero survey are that one in 15 individuals aged more than 10 have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 by August,” ICMR Director-General Dr Balram Bhargava said at a health ministry press conference.

The tests were conducted across 21 states and union territories, covering more than 29,000 people. These tests confirm findings of other COVID-19 antibody tests conducted in Mumbai and New Delhi, which also suggested that the actual number of cases likely numbers far higher than the current official estimates.

Determining an actual figure without rigorous testing of the entire population is all but impossible. Current research is also heavily conflicted regarding the ratios of symptomatic and asymptomatic cases. Such disparities in figures and research has been a hallmark of the pandemic, often the result of hastily conducted research as a means of understanding the rapidly-changing situation regarding COVID-19.

As reported previously by Health Issues India, “research published in PLOS Medicine indicates that asymptomatic infections with…SARS-CoV-2…are responsible for a minority of such infections when compared to symptomatic COVID-19 cases.”

This new research contradicts previous statements by both scientific bodies and health officials that the overwhelming majority of cases are asymptomatic. The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reported in April that, based on the available evidence drawn from global data, eighty percent of cases were asymptomatic. “On the basis of worldwide analysis, eighty percent of coronavirus patients are asymptomatic or show mild symptoms,” said joint secretary in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Lav Agarwal at the time.

This disparity in overall figures is indicative that either asymptomatic cases are more common than the new research would suggest — and that many people have contracted COVID-19 without realising this to be the case — or that testing, while increased significantly in India, is still not suitable for the scale of the issue.

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