United States’ top infection disease expert Anthony Fauci said that India should impose an immediate shutdown for a few weeks to control the spiralling coronavirus situation that has left its healthcare system in shambles and sparked a humanitarian crisis in the country.

In an interview with The Indian Express on Saturday, Fauci, who is the chief medical advisor to US President Joe Biden, said the restrictions would provide India a window to take critical “immediate, intermediate, and long range” steps to help overcome this “very difficult and desperate” situation.

“I think the most important thing in the immediate is to get oxygen, get supplies, get medication, get PPE, those kinds of things but also, one of the immediate things to do is to essentially call a shutdown of the country,” he told the newspaper.

Facui told The Indian Express that while vaccinating citizens was essential – something authorities “absolutely must, must do” – it would not alleviate the immediate problem of people needing oxygen, hospitalisation and medical care.

That’s because “it’s going to be a few weeks before you alleviate the prevention of other people getting sick” by vaccinating them, he said.

Therefore, a more immediate way to temporarily put an end to the cycle of transmission would be to “literally, lock down so that you wind up having less spread,” Fauci said.

The health expert added that a shutdown doesn’t necessarily have to be a long one. “But if you do it just for a few weeks, you could have a significant impact on the dynamics of the outbreak,” he added. “You don’t have to shut down for six months.”

‘Victory was declared maybe too prematurely’

The US’ health expert’s suggestions came as India set another global record in new virus cases on Saturday, recording over four lakh infections for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic last year. The country also reported 3,523 deaths in the 24 hours, bringing the total to 2,11,853.

Experts believe both figures are an undercount, but it’s unclear by how much.

The latest surge in infections has overwhelmed the country’s healthcare infrastructure, leading to acute shortages of oxygen, hospital beds and medicines that has left families begging for aid. Crematoriums are overflowing and mass cremations are taking place as daily deaths have nearly tripled in the past weeks.

Asked about the worsening situation, Fauci told The Indian Express that he thought the Indian authorities had declared victory over the virus “maybe too prematurely”.

He added, “If you don’t respect its ability to cause serious damage, you are going to get into trouble.”

India had thought the worst was over when cases ebbed in September. But mass public gatherings such as political rallies and religious events and relaxed attitudes of leaders as well as citizens backfired, experts say.

Build hospitals on war footing

Fauci said that seeing the situation in the country, it seemed to him as if the people in India think “there really was not any central organisation” that they could approach for help, when all they are looking for is “a desperate need for hospital and care”.

“I would think that you’ve got to get some sort of a commission, or an emergency group to make a plan how to get oxygen; how do we get supplies; how do we get medications, and call – maybe with help from WHO – countries,” he told The Indian Express.

The US health expert said India needed to do what China did last year to control the outbreak.

“You might recall, literally, within a few days to weeks they [China] built these emergency units that served as hospitals to take care of people,” he told the newspaper. “It was an accomplishment that everybody marvelled at.”

Similarly, India needs to ramp up its healthcare system on a war footing, Fauci said.

“The intermediate – to get hospitals built quickly. I mean really quickly, within a matter of – you know, they put up these field hospitals that they built during war,” he said. “You should think of this, in some respects, like a war.

“The enemy is the virus. So you know where the enemy is, so I would make it almost like wartime because it’s an emergency.”

— Anthony Fauci to The Indian Express

On vaccines

Fauci also expressed concern about India’s vaccination drive which has been sluggish so far. “To have a country like India, where 2% of people are vaccinated, is a very serious situation,” he told The Indian Express. “You absolutely have to get more people vaccinated.”

The health expert said the authorities should do “whatever you can” to get as many people vaccinated as possible “in a matter of a couple of weeks”.

Facui added that India should try procuring more doses from other countries, including from Russia and China.

“There are many companies that now have vaccines,” he said. “India is what, 1.4 billion people? You have a lot of vaccines that you need to get, and I would go to multiple different companies and try to get contractual arrangements so that you can get vaccines as quickly as you possibly can.”

At the same time, India should also rev up its own capabilities to make vaccines, given how its the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world, the health expert told The Indian Express.