A government forum of scientific advisers warned Indian officials in early March that a new, more contagious coronavirus was circulating in the country, five scientists from the forum told Reuters.
Despite the warning, four of the scientists said that the federal government did not try to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. Hundreds of undisclosed figures participated in religious festivals and political rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the ruling Baratya Janata Party and opposition politicians.
At present, the world’s second most populous country is working hard to curb the second wave of infections, and its infection rate is much higher than last year. Some scientists say that the second infection is being accelerated by a new variant and another variant first discovered in the UK. India reported 386,452 new cases last Friday, a global record.
Since Modi took office in 2014, the soaring infection rate is India’s biggest crisis. It remains to be seen how his handling may affect Modi or his party politically. The next general election will be held in 2024. Before the scale of the new infection surge became apparent, the voting in the most recent local election was basically completed.
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium (INSACOG) issued a warning about the new variant in early March. A scientist, who asked not to be named, said that it was passed on to a senior official who reported directly to the Prime Minister. Reuters was unable to determine whether INSACOG’s findings have been passed on to Modi himself.
Modi’s office did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
INSACOG was established by the government in late December as a forum for scientific advisors, dedicated to detecting mutations in the coronavirus genome that may threaten public health. INSACOG brings together 10 national laboratories capable of studying virus variants.
Ajay Parida, director of the National Institute of Life Sciences and a member of INSACOG, told Reuters that INSACOG researchers first discovered B.1.617 in February, and it is now known as the Indian virus. variant.
The director of the North India Research Center told Reuters that INSACOG shared its findings with the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) of the Ministry of Health before March 10, warning that infections may increase rapidly in parts of the country. The person familiar with the matter said that the results of the investigation were then forwarded to the Indian Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Around that date, INSACOG began to prepare a draft media statement for the Ministry of Health. A version of the draft seen by Reuters clarified the Forum’s findings: The new Indian variant has two significant mutations in the part of the virus attached to human cells and was tracked in 15% to 20% of samples. Maharashtra, the most affected state in India.
The draft statement stated that these mutations, known as “E484Q” and “L452R”, received “high attention.” It said: “There are data showing that the E484Q mutant virus evades highly neutralizing antibodies in culture, and there are data showing that the L452R mutation causes both increased transmission and immune escape.”
In other words, in essence, this means that the mutant form of the virus can more easily enter human cells and resist the body’s immune response to it.
The ministry issued this discovery to the media on March 24, about two weeks later, when the ministry issued a statement to the media that did not include the word “highly concerned.” The statement only said that more problematic variants require the following measures that have been taken-increased testing and isolation. Since then, the number of tests per day has almost doubled to 1.9 million.
When asked why the government did not respond more forcefully to the findings, such as by restricting large gatherings, Shahid Jameel, chairman of INSACOG’s scientific advisory group, said he was concerned that the authorities did not pay enough attention to the evidence when formulating policies.
He told Reuters: “Policies must be based on evidence, not the other way around.” “I worry that science is not considered in policy formulation. But I know where my jurisdiction stops. As scientists, we provide evidence and decision-making is the responsibility of the government.”
The director of the North India Research Center told Reuters that the draft press release had been sent to the country’s most senior bureaucrat, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who reported directly to the prime minister. Reuters could not know whether Modi or his office was informed of the investigation results. Gaoba did not respond to a request for comment.
The government did not take any measures to prevent gatherings that could accelerate the spread of the new variant, as new infections had tripled before April 1 compared to a month ago.
Modi, some of his senior deputies and dozens of other politicians, including opposition figures, held national rallies for local elections throughout March to April.
The government also allowed the Kumbh Mela religious festival, which lasts several weeks from mid-March, to be attended by millions of Hindus. At the same time, thousands of farmers were allowed to stay camping on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, to protest the new agricultural laws.
To be sure, some scientists say that the surge has far exceeded expectations, and setbacks cannot rely solely on political leadership. Saumitra Das, director of INSACOG’s National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, told Reuters: “No responsibility is attributed to the government.”
No strict measures have been taken
INSACOG reports to the National Center for Disease Control in New Delhi. According to meeting minutes reviewed by Reuters, NCDC director Sujeet Kumar Singh recently stated at a private online gathering that strict lock-in measures would be required in early April.
Singh said at the April 19 meeting: “According to our thinking, the exact time is 15 days ago.”
Singh did not say at the meeting whether he directly warned the government of the need to take action. Singh declined to comment to Reuters.
Singh said at a gathering on April 19 that he had recently communicated the urgency of the matter to government officials.
Singh said of a meeting held on April 18: “It is very, very clear that unless drastic measures are taken immediately, it will be too late to prevent the death rate that we want to see.” The government that decided to participate in the meeting. Officials or describe their qualifications.
Singh said that some government officials at the meeting worried that with the depletion of basic medical supplies such as oxygen, medium-sized cities and towns might see law and order problems, a situation that has become popular in parts of India.
The National COVID-19 Working Group also expressed the need to take urgent action last week. The working group, composed of 21 experts and government officials, was established in April last year to provide the Ministry of Health with scientific and technical guidance on the pandemic. It is chaired by Modi’s senior coronavirus consultant VK Paul.
The group discussed it on April 15 and “unanimously agreed that the situation is serious and that we should not hesitate in imposing a blockade,” said a scientist who attended the meeting.
The scientist said that Paul attended the discussion. Reuters was unable to determine whether Paul passed the panel’s conclusions to Modi. Paul did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
Two days after Singh issued a warning to government officials on April 18, Modi spoke to the United States on April 20, opposing the blockade. He said that the blockade should be the last resort to fight this virus. A year ago, India’s two-month national blockade made millions of people unemployed and destroyed the economy.
“We must save the country from the blockade. I also ask the states to make the blockade the last option,” Modi said. He said: “We must do our best to avoid lock-ups and focus our attention on micro containment areas.” He was referring to small local lock-downs implemented by the authorities to control the epidemic.
Indian state governments have broad freedom in formulating health policies in their regions, and some state governments have taken independent actions to try to control the spread of the virus.
Maharashtra is the second most populous country in the country, including Mumbai. The country implemented strict restrictions in early April, such as closing offices and shops, because the hospital ran out of beds, oxygen and medicines. It imposed a total blockade on April 14.
The Indian variant has now reached at least 17 countries, including the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Iran, causing the governments of several countries to close their borders to people from India.
The World Health Organization has not declared the Indian variant as a “variety of concern” like the variants first discovered in the UK, Brazil and South Africa. However, the World Health Organization stated on April 27 that its early modeling was based on genome sequencing, indicating that the growth rate of B.1.617 was higher than other variants circulating in India.
Anurag Agrawal, a senior scientist at INSACOG, told Reuters that a British variant named B.1.1.7 was also found in the UK in January, including Punjab in the north, which was the main epicenter of farmers’ protests.
According to a statement issued by the Punjab government on March 23, NCDC and some INSACOG laboratories determined that the surge of cases in Punjab was caused by the British variant.
Punjab State implemented a blockade operation on March 23. However, thousands of farmers in the state remained in protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi, and many moved back and forth between the two places before the restrictions began.
“This is a time bomb,” said Agrawal, director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. The institute studied some samples from Punjab. “This is an explosive problem. During a pandemic, public gatherings are a huge problem. In terms of spreading potential, B.1.1.7 is indeed a very bad variant.”
On April 7, two weeks after the announcement of the British variant in Punjab, in Delhi, the number of coronavirus cases began to increase sharply. Within a few days, the city’s hospital beds, intensive care facilities and medical oxygen began to run out. In some hospitals, patients died from inhalation before receiving treatment. The crematorium in this city is full of bodies.
Delhi now has one of the highest infection rates in the country, with three out of ten positive results for the virus.
In the past 9 days, India has reported more than 300,000 infections every day, which is the most serious situation in the world since the beginning of the pandemic. The death toll has also surged, with the total number of deaths this week exceeding 200,000.
Agrawal and two other senior government scientists told Reuters that federal health authorities and local officials in Delhi should be better prepared after seeing what these variants are doing in Maharashtra and Punjab. Reuters was unable to determine to whom specific warnings were issued to prepare for a significant surge.
Shanta Dutta, a medical research scientist at the state-run National Institute of Cholera and Intestinal Diseases, said: “We are in a very serious situation.” “People listen to politicians better than scientists.”
Rakesh Mishra, director of INSACOG’s Center for Cell and Molecular Biology, said the country’s scientific community is frustrated.
He told Reuters: “We could have done better, and our science could have been given more meaning.” “What we observe in any tiny way should be better used.”
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