Indians pay as Centre ignored warning of Covid-19 variants by experts

Despite a warning of a disaster in the making, four scientists and a researcher told both the Telegraph and Reuters that the government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus


Two warnings ignored? Who is culpable? No less than a forum of scientific advisers set up by the government in early March 2021 itself and a special task force as early January 2021 warned Indian officials of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country. Five scientists who are part of the forum have told this to Reuters and a researcher to the Telegraph last week. Besides sero-surveys in various states had also warned of the second tsunami that is upon us (Indian Express).

What does this central government do? Ignoring the specific warning, four of the scientists said the Modi-led central government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. Hundreds of thousands (millions actually) of largely unmasked people attended religious festivals like the Maha-Kumbh and political rallies addressed by the prime minister, Narendra  Modi, minister for home affairs, Amit Shah amd other leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition politicians. Also, thousands of farmers, meanwhile, continued to camp on the edge of New Delhi protesting Modi’s agricultural policy changes.

India, the world’s second-most densely populated country is now not just struggling to contain a second wave of infections much more severe than its first last year, which, according to  some scientists, is being accelerated by the new variant and another variant first detected in Britain. Governed by a party and a leader who has chosen to ignore scientific and professional advice, leave alone coordinating with state governments, matters have become so much worse. India has now reported 386,452 new cases on Friday, a global record.

Who issued the warning that was ignored? Scientists say that the warning about the new variant in early March was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium, or INSACOG. It was conveyed to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister, according to one of the scientists, the director of a research centre in northern India who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reuters could not determine whether the INSACOG findings were passed on to Modi himself.

Modi’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

January 2021 warnings ignored

Even before this, the Centre failed to anticipate the second Covid-19 wave despite warning signals and omitted to take steps that could have mitigated the devastation, a top government researcher has told the Telegraph, agreeing with other experts that India is paying the price for complacency. The health researcher, a member of the Centre’s national task force on Covid-19, said the surge and the nationwide bed and oxygen shortages had resulted from a complacency that ignored data from India and elsewhere suggesting “a big wave” was possible. The researcher spoke anonymously to the Kolkata-based paper.  “There were indications a big wave could hit us, but that knowledge was not translated into more preparedness or strong public warnings.”

The researcher said an ICMR survey in January had found that only 25 per cent people had already been infected, implying that 75 per cent of the population was still susceptible to a future wave. “We also knew from Europe and the US that second waves could be bigger than the first.”

These warnings were given as early as January 2021. And it was on January 28, 2021 that prime minister, Narendra Modi gloated at the Davos Economic Summit of “India’s victory against Covid-19.

Let’s recall Modi’s words at Davos:

 “Friends, I have brought the message of confidence, positivity and hope from 1.3 billion Indians amid these times of apprehension … It was predicted that India would be the most affected country from corona all over the world. It was said that there would be a tsunami of corona infections in India, somebody said 700-800 million Indians would get infected while others said 2 million Indians would die.”

“Friends, it would not be advisable to judge India’s success with that of another country. In a country which is home to 18% of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

This triumphalism and false complacency has cost hundreds of thousands of Indians their lives.

“We can now ask among ourselves: who’s responsible? Is it the health ministry, is it the Indian Council of Medical Research,  is it the government? All I’d say is: collectively we have failed,” said the researcher to the Telegraph, accepting the blame that some health experts have hurled. In contrast, the health ministry has been reluctant to discuss the subject.

Contradicting the stance of several senior health officials who have attributed the second wave to people’s laxity in wearing masks and maintaining physical distance, the health researcher said it would be unfair to point fingers at the public. “You cannot blame people. People will do what they like to do and what they are encouraged to do. People need appropriate guidance, appropriate messaging,” the researcher said.

“We were not able to translate the available data into strong enough cautionary messages for the public.” The researcher said an ICMR survey in January had found that only 25 per cent people had already been infected, implying that 75 per cent of the population was still susceptible to a future wave.

“We also knew from Europe and the US that second waves could be bigger than the first.” The researcher, echoing concerns aired by other health experts, said that after the epidemic shrank between October and December and the daily counts of new cases fell steadily, the government did little to curb the crowding that occurred at election rallies and at the Kumbh Mela. As tens of thousands gathered at the Kumbh and at election rallies every day, health officials remained largely silent except for issuing cursory advisories about mask-wearing and maintaining physical distance.

Amid the bed and oxygen shortages, at least two hospitals in Delhi on Thursday appeared so close to running out of oxygen that their administrators were considering asking critically ill patients to leave and look for beds in other hospitals.

“What we’re seeing happen was not inevitable or unavoidable,” said Ramanan Laxminarayanan, an economist and epidemiologist and founder director of the Centre for Disease Dynamics Economics and Policy, a research think tank in the US and India. “Organising more oxygen should have been part of the preparedness process, and preparing with thousands of beds in stadiums was also possible.”

 “This is not a government that tolerates dissent. If the experts don’t tolerate (the official) line, they’d be out. The buck stops with whoever is elected,” a health expert said, also requesting anonymity.

Scientists’ warnings ignored

INSACOG was set up as a forum of scientific advisers by the government in late December 2020 specifically to detect genomic variants of the coronavirus that might threaten public health. INSACOG brings together 10 national laboratories capable of studying virus variants.

The researchers within INSACOG first detected B.1.617, which is now known as the Indian variant of the virus, as early as February, Ajay Parida, director of the state-run Institute of Life Sciences and a member of INSACOG, told Reuters. These findings were shared with the ministry run by Harsh Vardhan, the central health ministry. When? Before March 10, 2021. What did the INSACOG warnings say? INSACOG warned that infections could quickly increase in parts of the country, the director of the northern India research centre told Reuters. The health ministry has not responded to requests by Reuters for comment.

It was around March 10 that INSACOG began to prepare a draft media statement for the health ministry. Reuters has seen a version of that draft that et out the forum’s findings: the new Indian variant had two significant mutations to the portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, and it had been traced in 15-20% of samples from Maharashtra, India’s worst-affected state.

This draft statement said that the mutations, called E484Q and L452R, were of “high concern.” It said “there is data of E484Q mutant viruses escaping highly neutralising antibodies in cultures, and there is data that L452R mutation was responsible for both increased transmissibility and immune escape.” What this means is that, the mutated versions of the virus could more easily enter a human cell and counter a person’s immune response to it.

For two weeks the ministry sat on these findings and made the findings public about two weeks later, on March 24, when it issued a statement to the media that concealed the words “high concern.” The statement said only that more problematic variants required following measures already underway – increased testing and quarantine. Testing has since nearly doubled to 1.9 million tests a day.

Why the Indian government not respond more decisively to these scientific findings by, for example restricting large gatherings? “Policy has to be based on evidence and not the other way around,” one of the scientists told old Reuters. “I am worried that science was not taken into account to drive policy. But I know where my jurisdiction stops. As scientists we provide the evidence, policymaking is the job of the government.”

There is more. The senior most bureaucrats in the country, Rajiv Gauba was sent this draft. Gauba reports directky to Narendra Modi. Reuters was unable to learn whether Modi or his office was informed of the findings. Gauba did not respond to a request for comment.

What we know is this: the government took no steps to prevent gatherings that might hasten the spread of the new variant, as new infections quadrupled by April 1 from a month earlier. Modi, some of his top colleagues, and dozens of other politicians, including opposition figures, held rallies across the country for local elections throughout March and and well into April.

The government also allowed the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival, attended by millions of Hindus, to proceed from mid-March. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers were allowed to remain camped on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi to protest against new agriculture laws.

Some scientists say the surge was much larger than expected and the setback cannot be pinned on political leadership alone. “There is no point blaming the government,” Saumitra Das, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, which is part of INSACOG, told Reuters.

Indian variant now a super spreader

The Indian variant has now reached at least 17 countries including Britain, Switzerland and Iran, leading several governments to close their borders to people travelling from India. The World Health Organisation has not yet declared the India mutant a “variant of concern,” as it has done for variants first detected in Britain, Brazil, and South Africa. But the WHO said on April 27 that its early modelling, based on genome sequencing, suggested that B.1.617 had a higher growth rate than other variants circulating in India.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which originated in the UK, was also detected in India by January, including in the northern state of Punjab, a major epicentre for the farmers’ protests. The NCDC and some INSACOG laboratories determined that a massive spike in cases in Punjab was caused by the UK variant, according to a statement issued by Punjab’s state government on March 23. Punjab imposed a lockdown from March 23. But thousands of farmers from the state remained at protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi, many moving back and forth between the two places before the restrictions began.

By April 7, more than two weeks after Punjab’s announcement on the UK variant, cases of coronavirus began rising sharply in Delhi. Within days, hospital beds, critical care facilities, and medical oxygen began running out in the city. At some hospitals, patients died gasping for air before they could be treated. The city’s crematoriums overflowed with dead bodies.

Delhi is now suffering one of the worst infection rates in the country, with more than three out of every 10 tests positive for the virus. India overall has reported more than 300,000 infections a day for the past nine days, the worst streak anywhere in the world since the pandemic began. Deaths have surged, too, with the total exceeding 200,000 this week.

Courtesy: The Telegraph, Reuters, Indian Express




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