A forum of government advisers set up by the government warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious version of the coronavirus that is lingering in the country, five scientists who are part of the forum told Reuters.
Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the federal government was not trying to impose severe restrictions to stop the virus from spreading. Millions of largely unmasked people attended religious festivals and political rallies hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ruling Bharatiya Janata party leaders and opposition politicians.
The second most populous country in the world is now struggling to keep a second wave of infections, much more severe than the first last year, which some scientists say is accelerated by the new variant and another variant, first discovered in Britain. On Friday, India announced 386,452 new cases, a world record.
The jump in infections is the biggest crisis in India since Modi took office in 2014. It remains to be seen how his handling of this could affect Modi or his political party. The next general election is scheduled for 2024. Voting for the latest local elections was largely completed before the scale of the new influx of infections became apparent. Read more
The warning for the new variant was issued in early March by the Indian genetic consortium SARS-CoV-2 or INSACOG. He was handed over to a senior official who reported directly to the prime minister, according to one of the scientists, the director of a research center in North India, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reuters could not determine whether INSACOG’s findings were passed on to Modi himself.
Modi’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
INSACOG was set up as a forum of government scientific advisers in late December, specifically to discover genomic variants of the coronavirus that could endanger public health. INSACOG brings together 10 national laboratories capable of studying variants of viruses.
INSACOG researchers first discovered B.1.617, now known as the Indian version of the virus, back in February, Ajay Parida, director of the State Institute of Life Sciences and a member of INSACOG, told Reuters.
INSACOG shared its findings with the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) of the Ministry of Health before March 10, warning that infections could increase rapidly in some parts of the country, the director of the research center in North India told Reuters. The findings were then passed on to the Indian Ministry of Health, the man said. The Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.
Around this date, INSACOG began preparing a draft media statement for the Ministry of Health. A version of this project, seen by Reuters, sets out the forum’s findings: the new Indian variant has two significant mutations in the part of the virus that attaches to human cells, and is traced in 15% to 20% of Maharashtra samples, the strongest the country concerned in India.
The draft statement says that mutations called E484Q and L452R are a matter of “great concern”. It states that “there is evidence of mutant E484Q viruses that avoid highly neutralizing antibodies in cultures, and there is evidence that the L452R mutation is responsible for both increased portability and immune escape.”
In other words, this essentially means that mutated versions of the virus can more easily enter the human cell and counteract a person’s immune response to it.
The ministry made the findings public about two weeks later, on March 24, when it issued a statement to the media that did not include the words “strong concern”. The statement only says that the more problematic options require the following measures, which are already underway – increased testing and quarantine. Since then, testing has doubled to almost 1.9 million tests a day.
Asked why the government did not react more strongly to the findings, such as limiting large gatherings, Shahid Jamil, chairman of INSACOG’s scientific advisory group, said he was concerned that authorities were not paying enough attention to the evidence while setting policy.
“Politics must be based on evidence, not the other way around,” he told Reuters. “I am worried that science was not taken into account in determining policy. But I know where my jurisdiction stops. As scientists, we provide evidence that policy-making is the job of government. “
The director of the North India Research Center told Reuters that the draft media message had been sent to the country’s top bureaucrat, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who reported directly to the prime minister. Reuters could not find out if Modi or his office was informed of the findings. Gauba did not respond to a request for comment.
The government has not taken steps to prevent the collection, which could speed up the spread of the new variant, as new infections have quadrupled by April 1st from a month earlier.
Modi, some of his top lieutenants and dozens of other politicians, including opposition figures, rallied across the country for local elections in March and April.
The government also allowed the week-long Kumbh Mela religious festival, attended by millions of Hindus, to run from mid-March. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers have been allowed to camp on the outskirts of the New Delhi capital to protest the new agricultural laws.
Of course, some scholars say the tide has been much higher than expected, and failure cannot be attributed to political leadership alone. “There is no point in blaming the government,” Saumitra Das, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, which is part of INSACOG, told Reuters.
STRICT MEASURES NOT TAKEN
INSACOG reports to the National Disease Control Center in New Delhi. NCDC Director Director Kumar Singh recently told a private online gathering that strict locking measures were needed in early April, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by Reuters.
“The exact time we think was 15 days ago,” Singh said at the April 19 meeting, citing the need for tougher blocking measures.
During the meeting, Singh did not say whether he had warned the government directly about the need for action at the time. Singh declined to comment to Reuters.
Singh told a rally on April 19th that he had recently handed over the urgency of the matter to government officials.
“It was emphasized very, very clear that if drastic measures are not taken now, it will be too late to prevent the mortality we will see,” Singh said, referring to a meeting on April 18. He did not identify which government officials were at the meeting or describe their seniority.
Singh said some government officials at the meeting were worried that medium-sized cities could see problems with law and order as basic medical supplies such as oxygen were depleted, a scenario that has already begun to develop in some parts of India. Read more
The need for urgent action was also expressed a week ago by the National Working Group on COVID-19, a group of 21 experts and civil servants set up last April to provide scientific and technical guidance to the health ministry on the pandemic. It is chaired by VK Paul, Modi’s best coronavirus advisor.
The group held a discussion on April 15 and “unanimously agreed that the situation is serious and that we should not hesitate to impose blockades,” said one scientist who took part.
Paul attended the discussion, according to the scholar. Reuters could not determine whether Paul passed the conclusion to the Modi group. Paul did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
Two days after Singh’s April 18 warning to government officials, Modi addressed the nation on April 20, arguing against the blockade. According to him, the lock should be the last step in the fight against the virus. India’s two-month national blockade a year ago left millions unemployed and devastated the economy.
“We have to save the country from blockades. I would also like countries to use locks as a last resort, “Modi said. “We must do our best to avoid blockages and focus on micro-containment areas,” he said, referring to small, localized blockages imposed by the outbreak control authorities.
Indian governments have broad freedom to set health policies for their regions, and some have acted independently to try to control the spread of the virus.
Maharashtra, the country’s second most populous state that includes Mumbai, imposed severe restrictions such as closing offices and shops in early April as hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen and medicine. He imposed a full lock on April 14.
“BLOCK FOR TIME”
The Indian version has now reached at least 17 countries, including Britain, Switzerland and Iran, prompting several governments to close their borders to people traveling from India. Read more
The World Health Organization has not declared the mutant in India a “concern”, as it did for options first discovered in Britain, Brazil and South Africa. But the WHO said on April 27 that its early modeling, based on genome sequencing, suggests that B.1.617 has a higher growth rate than other variants circulating in India.
The option with the United Kingdom, called B.1.1.7, was also open in India until January, including in the northern state of Punjab, a major epicenter of farmers’ protests, Anurag Agrawal, a senior INSACOG scientist, told Reuters.
The NCDC and some INSACOG laboratories have found that a huge jump in Punjab cases is caused by the UK option, a statement issued by the Punjab government on March 23 said.
Punjab imposed a March 23 lock. But thousands of farmers from the country remained in protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi, many moving back and forth between the two places before restrictions began.
“It was a ticking time bomb,” said Agraval, director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, which studied some samples from the Punjab. “It was an explosion and public gatherings were a huge problem during a pandemic. And B.1.1.7 is a really bad option in terms of spread potential.”
By April 7, more than two weeks after Punjab’s announcement of the UK option, coronavirus cases began to rise sharply in Delhi. After a few days, the city began to run out of hospital beds, critical care facilities and medical oxygen. In some hospitals, patients died of suffocation before they could be treated. The crematoria of the city are full of dead bodies. Read more
Delhi currently suffers from one of the worst levels of infection in the country, with more than three out of every 10 tests being positive for the virus.
In total, India has reported more than 300,000 infections a day in the last nine days, the worst in the world since the pandemic began. Deaths have also risen, totaling more than 200,000 this week.
Agrawal and two other senior government scholars told Reuters that federal health officials and local officials in Delhi must have been better prepared after seeing what the options in Maharashtra and Punjab had done. Reuters could not determine what specific warnings were sent to anyone about the preparations for a huge jump.
“We are in a very difficult situation,” said Shanta Duta, a medical research scientist at the state’s National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. “People listen to politicians more than scientists.”
Rakesh Mishra, director of the Center for Cell and Molecular Biology, which is part of INSACOG, said the country’s scientific community is depressed.
“We could have done better, our science could have gained more importance,” he told Reuters. “What we observed in any small way had to be put to better use.”
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