Apr.16 -- Dr. Aparna Mukherjee, scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, discusses the factors behind the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. India reported more than 200,000 new Covid-19 infections on Thursday. That's its highest one-day surge since the pandemic broke out. Mukherjee speaks with Haslinda Amin and Rishaad Salamat during the "India Focus" segment on "Bloomberg Markets: Asia."
Ghastly scenes are playing out at hospitals and clinics across India as the country's health system collapses under a sudden spike in coronavirus cases. On Thursday, India confirmed nearly 315,000 new infections over the preceding 24 hours – the highest single-day tally for any country on any day since the pandemic began.
As the health system breaks down, there are fears that law and order may follow: Oxygen tankers are traveling under police guard to fend off looters. The black market trade in medical equipment has soared. Vaccines were stolen Thursday from a hospital warehouse in Haryana – but then the thief returned them hours later, with a note of apology. Police say the thief may have intended to steal anti-viral drugs, which are also in short supply.
People are stockpiling oxygen tanks at home, figuring there's no use in even trying to get into a hospital anymore.
Social media are full of desperate pleas from Indians seeking hospital beds, oxygen, anti-viral drugs, vaccines. One longtime journalist live-tweeted his declining oxygen levels until he died.
"I have never felt so desperate or helpless," Dr. Trupti Gilada said in a Facebook video she recorded of herself, weeping as she huddled in her car outside the Mumbai hospital where she works. "We are seeing young people. We have a 35-year-old who's on a ventilator. Please pray for our patients."
On graphs, India's sudden spike in new infections shoots straight up like a wall, rather than a rising curve. The surge has bewildered Indians, coming just after their country's caseload plummeted to record lows in February.
"Popular belief in the country, from the public to policymakers, was that India will not have a second wave – and unfortunately that let the guard down," said Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, an epidemiologist and public health expert who serves on a technical task force advising the Indian government on COVID-19. "It's clear that the marked opening of society – with travel, local elections, religious gatherings, weddings – led to superspreader events. And the emergence of variants certainly added speed."
Last month, India's Health Ministry announced it had detected 771 variants of the coronavirus in India, including ones first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil as well as what's being called a new "double mutant" variant. (That name may be misleading, because all variants have multiple mutations, and this one has since been given a better name: B1617.) In that variant, Indian scientists said they're studying two mutations that may increase the infectiousness of the virus and also help it evade vaccines.
Fears have escalated as Indian media carry reports of fully vaccinated people getting sick, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 88, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 nearly three weeks after his second vaccine dose April 3. As of Tuesday, his condition was stable.
But experts said those fears of vaccine inefficacy are not yet backed up by science. It's unclear how ill any of those fully vaccinated people have become, and which of the hundreds of variants circulating around India they caught. The Health Ministry said it has administered 132 million vaccine doses so far in a population of nearly 1.4 billion. That means fewer than 10% of people have received one dose, and fewer than 2% have gotten both. On Tuesday, the Indian government released data showing that only 0.03% or 0.04% of fully vaccinated people had tested positive for the coronavirus. India has been administering two vaccines that have shown high rates of efficacy in clinical trials: the Oxford-AstraZeneca one and another made by the Indian company Bharat Biotech.
"Even if this [B1617] strain is the worst case — and it would be really, really bad news for India — if other countries put in place now the kind of border measures we've seen work, we could potentially stop it going global," said Christina Pagel, a mathematician at University College London who's been tracking coronavirus variants. "We need to act now out of precaution."
This week, the U.K. restricted most travel from India. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also told Americans to avoid all travel to India, even if they've been fully vaccinated. Both governments cited India's variants.
A grim world record
India's daily tally announced Thursday exceeded the previous record of 313,310 cases set by the United States on Jan. 8, according to the CDC. But with testing kits also in short supply across India, that number may represent a fraction of the infections nationwide.
Confirmed deaths from the coronavirus also broke an Indian record Thursday, with 2,104 fatalities recorded in the previous 24 hours. But deaths too may be drastically undercounted, because many of the people dying outside hospitals never got tested. Bodies are piling up in morgues. Crematoriums can't work fast enough.
Indian hospitals say their patients are dying because of a shortage of oxygen as Covid case numbers and deaths set new records for a third day running.
India has recorded nearly a million infections in three days, with 346,786 new cases overnight into Saturday.
At the Jaipur Golden Hospital in Delhi, 20 people died overnight because of a lack of oxygen, an official said.
The government says it is deploying trains and the air force to transport supplies to hard-hit areas.
The number of deaths across India rose by 2,624 in the 24 hours to Saturday, up from 2,263 on Friday.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the situation in India was a "devastating reminder" of what the coronavirus could do.
A virologist at the Christian Medical College in the city of Vellore in southern India, Gagandeep Kang, told the BBC more action was needed to stop the spread of the virus.
"We need to ensure that there are no non-essential activities taking place. You know what Indian weddings are like, and restricting the size of gatherings, whether it is for family reasons, other social reasons or for business or for political rallies. All of that really needs to stop," she told the BBC.
"I don't think a national lockdown is required, but I think that in places that are showing a rise in cases, we do need to intervene with greater stringency than we have done in the past."