The Union Health Ministry on Tuesday warned against complacency amid an alarming surge of coronavirus cases in the country, saying the situation had “gone from bad to worse” over the last few weeks.
India’s infections have exceeded 60,000 daily over the past week from a low of about 10,000 in February. On Tuesday, India reported 56,211 new coronavirus cases, taking its tally to 1,20,95,855. Daily deaths rose by 271 and the virus has so far killed 1,62,114 people.
“Trends show the virus is still very active, can penetrate our defences, and just when we think we can control it, it sparks back,” National Expert Committee on Vaccine Administration Chairperson VK Paul said at a health ministry briefing. “It has done so in our country, it has done so in other countries.”
The health expert said that till now, India had taken pride in the fact that the country’s fatality rate has been relatively row. “But the death rate is now at four times, at 271 from 77,” Paul added. “So, clearly we have to be very vigilant.”
Paul added that without a special emphasis on effective contact tracing, quarantining, cluster management and isolation of patients, the virus cannot be eliminated. “We are clearly facing an increasingly severely intensive situation,” he said. “Therefore all efforts need to be made to save lives.”
On foreign variants of coronavirus
The health ministry, however, denied that the new mutated strains of the coronavirus had a role in the renewed surge in infections. It also denied that a new and potentially troublesome variant of the coronavirus had been detected in India. “There is no such thing as an Indian strain,” said Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan.
There is a concept of virus drift and there is a concept of virus shift, he explained. “All virus drift, the virus replicates itself and changes. That it itself is not important,” Bhushan added. “However, when a virus shifts, it undergoes changes, and therefore there is a need to check if existing vaccines work against them.”
Indian Council of Medical Research head Balram Bhargava said that this was not a cause to panic. “In terms of double mutations, which lay people are getting confused with, they are not significant as far as India is concerned and their relationship with increased severity and transmissibility has not been established in the Indian context,” he added.
The health ministry added that the presence of foreign mutant variants of the virus in India was low. Of the 11,064 genome samples sequenced in 10 national laboratories, scientists have found 807 cases of the United Kingdom variant, 47 South African variant and one of the Brazilian variant so far, it said.
It added that both Covaxin and Covishield were effective against the UK, Brazilian variant of the virus. “Work against the South African variant is ongoing at certain laboratories,” ICMR’s Bhargava said.
The virus has been mutating throughout the pandemic. Most mutations are trivial, but scientists have been investigating which ones might make the virus spread more easily or make people sicker. The three variants first detected in South Africa, Britain and Brazil are considered the most worrisome and have been designated “variants of concern”.
Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said that the primary reason for the rise in cases was the lackadaisical attitude of people toward following precautionary measures. “Testing rates in states are also dismal, and there are no prompt and effective isolation facilities for positive patients or contact tracing either,” he added.
10 districts have maximum active cases
Bhushan said there were 10 districts across the country that have the most number of active cases. These are Pune, Mumbai, Nagpur, Thane, Nashik, Aurangabad, Bengaluru Urban, Nanded, Delhi and Ahmednagar.
“Delhi, taken as one district, is among top 10 Covid-19 high-burden districts,” the health official said. “Eight such districts are from Maharashtra.”
The health ministry said it had been in constant touch with state governments to ensure they strengthen their healthcare and testing facilities. Bhushan said the states were urged to specifically ramp up the number of RT-PCR tests conducted in a region.
The Centre told the states that there should be a “saturation of vaccination” for priority age groups in districts that are reporting a surge in cases, Bhushan added. A total of 6,11,13,354 people have been vaccinated so far under the country’s inoculation programme that began in January.
“All private facilities must be utilised optimally for vaccination,” the health official said. “The facility must have adequate space for waiting, vaccination and observation room. The hospital must have a functional cold chain storage, adequate number of verifier and vaccinators. They must also have facilities to address adverse events following immunisation.”