India’s total COVID-19 cases rose by over 400,000 for the fourth consecutive day on Sunday, even as several states imposed strict lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus.
India’s health ministry on Sunday reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours, taking the overall death toll to 242,362. Cases rose by 403,738, increasing the total since the start of the pandemic to 22.3 million.
New Delhi has struggled to contain the outbreak, which has overwhelmed its healthcare system, and many experts suspect the official death and case numbers are a gross underestimate.
A variant of the virus spreading in India is more contagious and maybe dodging vaccine protections, contributing to the country’s explosive outbreak, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist said.
In an interview with AFP, Soumya Swaminathan warned that “the epidemiological features that we see in India today do indicate that it’s an extremely rapidly spreading variant”“.
Dr. Swaminathan, an Indian pediatrician, and clinical scientist, said the B.1.617 variant of COVID-19, first detected in India last October, was clearly contributing to the catastrophe unfolding in her homeland. “There have been many accelerators that are fed into this,” the 62-year-old said, stressing that “a more rapidly spreading virus is one of them”.
The WHO recently listed B.1.617 – which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics – as a “variant of interest”.
Resistant to antibodies?
But so far, it has stopped short of adding it to its shortlist of “variant of concern” – a label indicating it is more dangerous than the original version of the virus by being more transmissible, deadly, or able to get past vaccine protections. Several national health authorities, including the United States and Britain, have said they consider B.1.617 a variant of concern, and Dr. Swaminathan said she expected the WHO to soon follow suit.
“B 1.617 is likely to be a variant of concern because it has some mutations which increase transmission, and which also potentially could make (it) resistant to antibodies that are generated by vaccination or by natural infection,” she said. But she insisted that the variant alone could not be blamed for the dramatic surge in cases and deaths seen in India, lamenting that the country appeared to have let down its guard down, with “huge social mixing and large gatherings”.
Mass election rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other politicians have for instance partly been blamed for the staggering rise in infections. But even as many in India felt the crisis was over, dropping mask-wearing and other protection measures, the virus was quietly spreading.