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What are the global implications of India’s second COVID wave?

India is witnessing the worst phase of the pandemic while the WHO says a highly infectious Indian variant of the virus has already spread to 17 countries.

Health workers attend to COVID-19 patients at a makeshift hospital in New Delhi [File: AP Photo]

India has reported 357,229 new coronavirus cases over the last 24 hours – the 13th straight day of more than 300,000 infections – taking its overall tally to more than 20 million. Deaths rose 3,449 for a toll of 222,408, health ministry data showed on Tuesday.

However, medical experts say the real numbers across the country of 1.35 billion maybe five to 10 times higher than the official tally.

The steep climb in infections in the first week of April, when for the first time India surged past 100,000 cases, was indicative of an impending disaster.

In a matter of weeks, India descended into a COVID-19 hell as visuals of dead bodies lined up outside crematoriums, unending funeral pyres, and burials emerged from its major cities and towns.

 

The second wave is largely attributed to a contagious mix of coronavirus variants spreading in different parts. Two variants, the UK variant (B1.1.7) and the Indian variant (B.1.617), are largely blamed for the current spate of infections.

As evident from the mayhem caused by the UK variant in India, the emergence of an Indian variant sent ripples of concern across the globe.

The Indian variant, which is suspected to be highly infectious, could snowball into a global problem – according to the WHO, it has already spread to at least 17 countries.

“No place is really safe and that is why the world is so concerned,” says India’s leading virologist, Shahid Jameel.

 

 

The ongoing healthcare crisis is rapidly moving to smaller towns and villages where people are dying for lack of oxygen, hospital beds, and lifesaving drugs, just like in the big cities.

Threat of the mutants

In a larger pool of infections, the likelihood of mutations increases.

“Each time a wave or a spread occurs, the main strain that is spreading will keep changing,” says T Sundararaman, global coordinator of the People’s Health Movement and a former executive director of the National Health Systems Resource Centre.

“But so far, none of the variants have shown the capacity of immune escape,” he says. Immune escape is when a human body fails to respond to an infectious agent, in this case, a variant.

In a new study, researchers found that the more transmissible Brazilian variant was able to escape the body’s immune response built by a previous infection from a different variant.

 

India, which was supposed to help vaccinate other countries, now struggles to vaccinate its own.

Early this year, India launched an ambitious vaccination plan starting with the inoculation of 300 million Indians by summer. The country also sent more than 60 million doses of the Covishield and the domestically developed Covaxin vaccines to several countries as well.

On May 1, India opened up vaccination for everyone between the age of 18 to 45 but struggles to supply the doses required to meet the demand. Several states have come out to say that they are forced to defer the vaccination drive because they lack the shots.

“India was going to supply 50 percent of the world’s vaccines this summer and a lot of it were going to go too low and middle-income countries. Now the vaccines will be for domestic use,” says Jameel. This raises concern over the global demand for vaccines, especially in lower-income countries, that India was supposed to meet.

With India reaching out to the world, many countries have rallied to help the crisis-hit country.

India has received oxygen from Germany, Taiwan, the UK, and several countries in the Middle East, among others. On May 1, it received the first consignment of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which was granted emergency use approval by Indian regulators two weeks ago.

The United States, after much pressure, will ease its embargo of raw materials for vaccines and send testing kits, protective gear, oxygen cylinders, and ventilators.

Experts suggest that help with supplies might not be enough and the situation would require waiving vaccine patents, transfer of technology, technical expertise, and on-the-ground manpower for mass vaccination.

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