A government-created forum of scientific advisors warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more infectious form of the coronavirus taking hold in the region, according to five scientists who are members of the forum.
Despite the alert, four scientists said the federal government did not aim to enforce substantial restrictions to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Millions of people, mostly unmasked, attended religious festivals and political rallies organized by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, other leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and opposition politicians.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers protested Modi’s agricultural policy reforms on the outskirts of New Delhi.
The world’s second-most populated nation is now battling a second wave of infections that are much more serious than the first, which some scientists believe is being accelerated by the latest strain and another variant discovered in the United Kingdom.
On Saturday, India set a new daily global record with 401,993 new coronavirus cases, bringing the country’s total to more than 19.1 million. According to the health ministry, 3,523 people died in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths to 211,853.
The increase in infections is India’s worst crisis since Modi’s election in 2014. It remains to be seen how his handling of the situation would impact Modi and his party politically. The next general election will be held in 2024. The most recent local elections were largely completed before the scope of the new wave of infections became clear.
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium, or INSACOG, released an alert about the new variant in early March. According to one of the scientists, the director of a research center in northern India who spoke on the condition of anonymity, it was communicated to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister. Reuters was unable to decide whether Modi was informed of the INSACOG results.
A request for comment from Modi’s office was not returned.
In late December, the government established INSACOG as a forum of scientific advisors to identify genomic variants of the coronavirus that could endanger public health. The INSACOG consortium brings together ten national laboratories capable of researching virus variants.
B.1.617, now known as the Indian form of the virus, was discovered by INSACOG researchers as early as February, according to Ajay Parida, director of the state-run Institute of Life Sciences and a member of INSACOG.
Before March 10, INSACOG shared its findings with the health ministry’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), warning that infections could spread rapidly in parts of the world, according to the director of the northern India research center. According to this source, the findings were then forwarded to the Indian health ministry. The Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.
Around that time, INSACOG started drafting a media statement for the Ministry of Health. A version of the draft obtained by Reuters detailed the forum’s findings: the new Indian strain had two major mutations to the portion of the virus that binds to human cells, and it was found in 15% to 20% of samples from Maharashtra, India’s worst-affected state.
According to the draft statement, the mutations, known as E484Q and L452R, are of “high concern.” “There is evidence of E484Q mutant viruses escaping strongly neutralising antibodies in cultures, and there is data that the L452R mutation was responsible for both increased transmissibility and immune escape,” it said.
In other words, mutated forms of the virus could more readily penetrate a human cell and counteract a person’s immune response to it.
The results were made public about two weeks later, on March 24, when the ministry released a media statement that did not contain the words “strong concern.” The statement only stated that more problematic variants necessitated the already-implemented steps of increased testing and quarantine. Since then, testing has nearly doubled to 1.9 million tests a day.
When asked why the government did not react more strongly to the findings, such as by banning large gatherings, Shahid Jameel, chair of INSACOG’s scientific advisory group, expressed concern that authorities were not paying enough attention to the evidence when making policy decisions.
“Policy has to be based on evidence and not the other way around,” he said. “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.”
According to Parida, the draft media release was sent to the country’s most senior bureaucrat, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who reports directly to the prime minister. Reuters was unable to determine if Modi or his office were made aware of the results. Gauba did not respond to a comment appeal.
The government took no measures to discourage gatherings that could hasten the spread of the new variant, despite the fact that new infections had quadrupled from a month earlier by April 1.
Throughout March and into April, Modi, several of his top lieutenants, and scores of other leaders, including opposition figures, organized rallies across the country in preparation for local elections.
The government also permitted the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival, which draws millions of Hindus, to begin in mid-March.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers were permitted to remain camped on the outskirts of New Delhi to protest new agriculture laws.
To be sure, some scientists believe the surge was far greater than predicted, and that the setback cannot be blamed solely on political leadership. “There is no point accusing the government,” Saumitra Das, director of INSACOG’s National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, told Reuters.