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COVID-19 cases continue to ravage India

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The COVID-19 crisis in India shows no signs of abating, as cases remain around the 400,000 peak. The situation remains dire, with figures consistently surpassing that of all other nations.

India reported 403,000 new infections and 4,000 deaths on Sunday, indicating that — though the country may have hit a plateau — its figures remain at a global high. Global new daily cases currently range between 700,000 and 900,000, indicating that India now accounts for around half of all global cases.

Many are now suggesting that figures could be far higher than currently stated. Such a claim may not be far from the truth as testing for COVID-19 has actually fallen recently despite the heightened figures. Data from the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research showed that Sunday’s 1.47 million tests for COVID-19 were this month’s lowest yet, with the average for the month totalling at around 1.7 million tests per day.

Former Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi has implored Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prepare for another national lockdown, accelerate a countrywide vaccination programme, and scientifically track the virus and its mutations. He notes that India does not exist in isolation and that the recent surge in cases could pose a global threat. On the topic of vaccines, the Centre has said in an affidavit that “price factor [of the vaccines] will not have any impact on the ultimate beneficiary namely, the eligible person getting the vaccine since all state governments have already declared their policy decision that each state will be administering the vaccine to its residents, free of cost.”

“India is home to one out of every six human beings on the planet. The pandemic has demonstrated that our size, genetic diversity and complexity make India fertile ground for the virus to rapidly mutate, transforming itself into a more contagious and more dangerous form,” wrote Gandhi.

This fear of a global resurgence may already be manifest in reality. One of the three documented mutated strains first discovered in India has been cited in the UK as a “variant of concern” following the doubling of cases of this variant in the UK in just a week. The rise in cases in the UK has been attributed to returning travellers and contact with these individuals.

The so-called “Bengal strain” (B.1.618) was documented in India just last month. As Health Issues India noted at the time, “this new strain is the first recorded triple mutation. Scientists have expressed concern that the triple mutation strain is potentially more infectious, better able to evade the host’s immune system, and, perhaps most concerningly, could be able to infect individuals who have already contracted other strains of COVID-19.”

In a statement, Public Health England said “this [the classification as a variant of concern] is based on evidence which suggests this variant, first detected in India, is at least as transmissible as B.1.1.7 (the Kent variant). The other characteristics of this variant are still being investigated.”

At a national level in India there has been no direct messaging on the potential for another nationwide lockdown. This decision has largely been left to the states, many of which are already moving forward with lockdown procedures. Tamil Nadu has said it would shift from a partial to a full lockdown after neighboring Karnataka state extended its full lockdown Friday.

It has been suggested by experts that the initial lockdown easing by India, as well as the celebration at a national level attributable to the wrongful view that India’s COVID-19 situation is largely over, may have been a major contributing factor to the country’s vicious second wave.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, has warned that “the epidemiological features that we see in India today do indicate that it’s an extremely rapidly spreading variant.” She noted that the new variant may be one of the causative factors. However, large gatherings and a lapse in mask-wearing also played a role.

Many large-scale events occurred after the removal of the first lockdown, including cricket matches and religious gatherings. These were often attended by thousands of individuals, many maskless, and have since been speculated as superspreader events that have spurred the second wave. Large-scale religious gatherings at the River Ganga were attended by millions, shortly before the second wave hit.

Many issues are now striking the country simultaneously. On top of the reduction in testing, Reuters reports that “although the country has administered at least 157 million vaccine doses, its rate of inoculation has fallen sharply in recent days.” Such delays in vaccination at such a critical time could allow India’s devastating second wave to be prolonged. With more than 246,000 deaths at the time of writing, an extended second wave with such a high burden of cases could see India rise to become the worst affected country by the pandemic.

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