India has recorded 357,229 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, marking the 13th consecutive day of more than 300,000 infections, bringing the country’s total to more than 20 million. Deaths increased by 3,449, bringing the total to 222,408, according to health ministry data released on Tuesday.
However, medical experts believe that the true number of 1.35 billion people in the country is five to ten times higher than the official figure.
The sharp increase in infections in the first week of April, when India surpassed 100,000 cases for the first time, signaled an imminent catastrophe.
India descended into a COVID-19 hell in a matter of weeks, with images of dead bodies lined up outside crematoriums, never-ending funeral pyres, and burials emerging from its major cities and towns.
The ongoing healthcare crisis is quickly spreading to smaller towns and villages, where people are dying due to a shortage of oxygen, hospital beds, and life-saving medications, just as it is in major cities.
The second wave is largely due to an infectious mix of coronavirus variants spreading throughout the country. The latest outbreak of infections is largely blamed on two variants: the UK variant (B1.1.7) and the Indian variant (B.1.617).
The emergence of an Indian variant sent ripples of concern around the world, as evidenced by the mayhem caused by the UK variant in India.
The Indian version, which is thought to be highly contagious, has the potential to become a global issue; 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.
Variants of concern
The catastrophic new chapter of the pandemic in India endangers not only the country’s safety, but also the entire world.
Several variants have been spreading throughout the country since December of last year.
According to experts, the UK variant is more prevalent in the northern states, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the spread in Punjab and 40 to 50 percent of the spread in Haryana and Delhi.
It is also present in varying degrees in Uttar Pradesh and Indian-administered Kashmir.
However, the Indian variant is more virulent in Maharashtra, with some parts of the state reporting as much as 60% of the sample being the Indian variant.
A different story is being told in the east.
“Our analysis shows that every possible variant is in West Bengal,” says Jameel.
A protracted assembly election in West Bengal, with mega election rallies led by political leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is thought to have devolved into a series of “super-spreader” events.
Though the state is seeing an increase in cases, experts believe that the true extent of the spread in West Bengal will become clear in the coming weeks.
According to Jameel, West Bengal has small amounts of the UK and Indian strains, as well as the South African version (B.1.351).
“Vaccines have less effect on this (South African) variant and how it came into Bengal remains a mystery,” says Jameel, adding that the strain is also circulating in Bangladesh.
The state also discovered a new lineage of the Indian variant, B.1.618, with a mutation similar to the highly transmissible South African and Brazilian (P.1) variants.
The WHO classifies three variants discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil as “variants of concern,” while the Indian version remains a “variant of interest.”
Some, however, warn against blaming the outbreak solely on variants and ignoring the lack of public health interventions that contributed to the outbreak.
“India opened early, thinking the virus was under control, and recent ‘mask-less’ political rallies, outdoor religious festivals also played a major role in increasing transmission and spread,” said Pooja Gala of the NYU Department of Medicine and Department of Population Health.
Despite a raging pandemic, the Indian government permitted religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Festival), which drew over 9 million Hindu pilgrims to Uttarakhand in northern India.