Indian health experts have said that the country missed early alarm, and let deadly coronavirus variant spread
According to Reuters, a veteran public health expert warned top Indian officials in early March that a new variant of the coronavirus was spreading quickly in a rural district in the heart of the country and that the outbreak required urgent attention.
Federal health authorities failed to respond adequately to that warning, Dr Subhash Salunke, who has 30 years of experience in public health in India, Indonesia and the United States, told Reuters.
The variant’s first impact was detected months earlier in the Amravati district of the western state of Maharashtra, where health authorities recorded a rapid increase in coronavirus infections in early February, even as cases fell elsewhere in India.
Salunke told Reuters he warned both Paul and Singh that the virus was showing signs of mutating in Amravati, that its transmissibility was increasing, and requested federal help in sequencing more samples to establish how the variant was behaving.
“In spite of a public health person like me giving them a sound warning, they did not take heed,” Salunke told Reuters.
Despite Salunke’s flagging of the problem, and a further warning in early March from a forum of scientific advisers that the new variant was taking hold in the country, the federal government allowed election rallies, religious festivals and other mass gatherings to proceed, and failed to take measures to halt the spread of the virus.
Within 80 days, the variant went from Amravati to dozens of countries around the world, including Britain, the United States and Singapore, presenting a setback to global efforts to contain the disease.
It is impossible to say exactly how many infections in each country have been caused by the new variant, because very few samples from positive tests have been sequenced. U.S. authorities estimated last week that the variant accounted for 6% of coronavirus infections there.
A task force set up by the Maharashtra government to guide its pandemic response ordered a probe. Dr Rajesh Karyakarte, who was part of the investigation, said he analysed four positive samples from the region and found they all contained a mutation called E484Q, a sign that a variant was likely at play.
Karyakarte told Reuters he presented the findings to the Maharashtra task force in a video conference on 16 Feb.
The discovery of the new mutation and spiking case numbers in Amravati alarmed Salunke. He said he travelled to Amravati in late February and conducted coronavirus tests on nearly 700 people. Around half of them turned out positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, federal health officials played down the potential role of new variants in the spike of infections.
“There is no direct relation between the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Maharashtra and some other states with the mutant virus strains N440K and E484Q of COVID-19,” India’s health ministry said in a media statement on Feb. 23.
“We knew that something had been spotted but we didn’t know the significance thereof at that point,” Paul told Reuters. “True significance of variants emerges with time. Scientific data has now led us to understand the role of these variants.”
In late February, federal and local officials had a meeting to discuss the spike in Amravati, according to a senior government scientist who attended it.
At the meeting, Maharashtra’s State Surveillance Officer Dr Pradip Awate said the rise in cases was due to voters flocking to local elections held in January rather than any kind of new variant, the scientist who attended the meeting told Reuters.
“What happened in Maharashtra is a natural phenomenon. And it should have been addressed on a war footing, as an absolute emergency,” he said. “It was ignored and the entire focus was on the elections,” he said, referring to a series of state elections that were held through March and April, drawing crowds of thousands to rallies by Modi’s party as well as opposition politicians.
Missing the rise of the variant in Amravati in late February was a “major mistake”, said the scientist who attended the Maharashtra meeting.
State health official Awate said Maharashtra could have imposed stricter lockdowns and restricted inter-district travel much sooner. Instead, lockdowns were imposed in Maharashtra and other major cities such as New Delhi only in mid-to-late April.
Between March and April, the federal government allowed the Kumbh Mela Hindu festival to proceed in northern India, drawing millions of people from around the country for a holy dip in the Ganges, many of whom travelled back home carrying the virus, according to public health officials.