Relatives react when a healthcare worker pulls a stretcher that carries the body of a person who has died of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in a morgue amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in April in Ahmedabad, India 26, 2021.
Amit Dave | Reuters
A government-established forum of scientific advisors warned Indian officials of a new and contagious variant of the coronavirus in the country in early March, five scientists who are part of the forum told Reuters.
Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the federal government hadn’t tried to impose major restrictions to stop the virus from spreading. Millions of largely exposed people attended religious festivals and political rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party and opposition politicians.
Tens of thousands of farmers camped on the outskirts of New Delhi to protest Modi’s changes in agricultural policy.
The world’s second most populous country is now struggling to contain a second wave of infections, which is much more serious than the first last year. Some scientists say the new variant and another variant first discovered in the UK will speed it up. India reported 386,452 new cases on Friday, a world record.
The surge in infections is India’s biggest crisis since Modi took office in 2014. It remains to be seen how his handling of it could affect Modi or his party politically. The next general election is planned for 2024. The vote in the last local elections was largely complete before the magnitude of the new surge in infections became apparent.
The warning about the new variant was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium (INSACOG) at the beginning of March. According to one of the scientists, the director of a research center in northern India, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it was transmitted to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister. Reuters could not determine whether the INSACOG results were passed on to Modi himself.
Modi’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
INSACOG was set up by the government in late December as a forum for scientific advisors to identify genomic variants of the coronavirus that could pose a public health risk. INSACOG brings together 10 national laboratories that can examine virus variants.
INSACOG researchers discovered B.1.617, now known as the Indian variant of the virus, back in February, Ajay Parida, director of the state institute for life sciences and a member of INSACOG, told Reuters.
INSACOG shared its findings with the Department of Health’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) ahead of March 10, warning that infections could rise rapidly in parts of the country, the director of the North India Research Center told Reuters. The results were then forwarded to the Indian Ministry of Health, this person said. The Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.
Around this time, INSACOG began preparing a draft media statement for the Ministry of Health. A version of this draft seen by Reuters included the forum’s findings: The new Indian variant had two significant mutations for the part of the virus that attaches to human cells, and it has been traced in 15% to 20% of the samples from Maharashtra, India’s worst hit state.
The draft declaration stated that the E484Q and L452R mutations were “of great concern”. It is said that “there is data from E484Q mutant viruses escaping strongly neutralizing antibodies in culture, and there is data that the L452R mutation was responsible for both increased transmissibility and escape of the immune system.”
In other words, it essentially meant that mutated versions of the virus could more easily enter a human cell and counter a person’s immune response to it.
The ministry released the results about two weeks later, on March 24, when it issued a statement to the media that did not include the words “great concern”. The statement only says that more problematic variants are required after measures are already in progress – increased testing and quarantine. Tests have since almost doubled to 1.9 million tests per day.
When asked why the government was not responding more forcefully to the results, for example by restricting large gatherings, Shahid Jameel, chairman of INSACOG’s scientific advisory group, said he was concerned that authorities were not paying enough attention to the evidence in setting policy .
“The policy has to be based on evidence and not the other way around,” he told Reuters. “I worry that science was not taken into account to drive policy. But I know where my jurisdiction ends. As scientists, we provide the evidence, policy-making is the job of the government.”
The director of the North Indian Research Center told Reuters that the draft media release had been sent to the country’s top bureaucrat, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who will report directly to the Prime Minister. Reuters could not find out if Modi or his office were informed of the results. Gauba did not respond to a request for comment.
The government took no steps to prevent gatherings that could accelerate the spread of the new variant, as new infections quadrupled by April 1 compared to the previous month.
Modi, some of his top lieutenants, and dozens of other politicians, including members of the opposition, held local election rallies across the country in March and April.
A health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) walks past the stake of those who died of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) during a mass cremation in a crematorium in New Delhi, India on April 26, 2021.
Adnan Abidi | Reuters
The government also allowed the week-long Kumbh Mela religious festival, attended by millions of Hindus, from mid-March. In the meantime, tens of thousands of farmers on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi have been allowed to stay in the camp to protest against new agricultural laws.
However, some scholars say the increase has been much larger than expected and the setback is not solely due to political leadership. “There is no point blaming the government,” Saumitra Das, director of the National Institute for Biomedical Genomics, which is part of INSACOG, told Reuters.
INSACOG reports to the National Center for Disease Control in New Delhi. NCDC director Sujeet Kumar Singh recently told a private online gathering that strict lockdown measures were required in early April, according to a Reuters-verified recording of the meeting.
“The exact time was after our deliberation 15 days earlier,” said Singh at the April 19 meeting, referring to the need for stricter lockdown measures.
Singh did not say during the meeting whether he was directly warning the government of the need for action at the time. Singh declined to comment on Reuters.
Singh told the congregation on April 19 that he had recently referred the matter to government officials.
“It was made very, very clear that it will be too late to prevent the mortality we will see if drastic measures are not taken now,” said Singh, referring to a meeting that was held on April 18th took place Identify which government officials attended the meeting or describe their seniority.
Singh said some government officials at the meeting feared medium-sized cities may see law and order problems as vital medical supplies such as oxygen run out, a scenario that has already unfolded in parts of India.
The need for urgent action was also expressed the week before by the National Task Force on Covid-19, a group of 21 experts and government officials set up last April to provide scientific and technical guidance on the pandemic to the Department of Health . It is used by V.K. Paul, Modi’s best coronavirus advisor.
The group had a discussion on April 15 and “unanimously agreed that the situation is grave and that we should not hesitate to issue bans,” said a participating scientist.
According to the scientist, Paul was present at the discussion. Reuters couldn’t determine if Paul relayed the group’s conclusion to Modi. Paul did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
Two days after Singh warned government officials on April 18, Modi spoke to the nation on April 20, speaking out against bans. He said a lockdown should be a last resort to fight the virus. India’s two-month national lockdown a year ago left millions of people jobless and devastated the economy.
“We have to save the country from lockdowns. I would also urge states to use lockdowns as a last resort,” said Modi. “We have to do our best to avoid lockdowns and focus on micro-containment zones,” he said, referring to small, localized locks that authorities have put in place to control outbreaks.
Indian state governments have wide leeway in setting health policies for their regions, and some have acted independently to control the spread of the virus.
Maharashtra, the country’s second-largest state, which also includes Mumbai, imposed severe restrictions in early April, including closing offices and shops, as hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen and medicines. A full lockdown was imposed on April 14th.
The Indian variant has now reached at least 17 countries, including Great Britain, Switzerland and Iran. Several governments have closed their borders to people traveling from India.
The World Health Organization has not declared the Indian mutant a “worrying variant” as it did with variants first discovered in the UK, Brazil and South Africa. However, the WHO said on April 27 that their early modeling, based on genome sequencing, suggests that B.1.617 has a higher growth rate than other variants circulating in India.
The British variant, named B.1.1.7, was also discovered in India in January, including in the northern state of Punjab, a major epicenter for the farmers’ protests, Anurag Agrawal, a senior INSACOG scientist, told Reuters.
The NCDC and some INSACOG laboratories found that the British variant caused a massive increase in cases in Punjab, according to a statement by the Punjab state government on March 23.
Punjab imposed a lockdown starting March 23rd. But thousands of state farmers remained in protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi, many moving back and forth between the two locations before restrictions began.
“It was a ticking time bomb,” said Agrawal, director of the Institute for Genomics and Integrative Biology, which examined some samples from Punjab. “It was a blast thing, and public gatherings are a big problem in times of pandemic. And B.1.1.7 is a really bad variant in terms of spreading potential.”
On April 7, more than two weeks after Punjab’s announcement of the British variant, coronavirus cases in Delhi rose sharply. Within a few days, the city ran out of hospital beds, intensive care units, and medical oxygen. In some hospitals, patients died who gasped for breath before they could be treated. The city’s crematoria were full of corpses.
Delhi is currently suffering from one of the worst infection rates in the country. More than three out of ten tests are positive for the virus.
Overall, India has reported more than 300,000 infections per day for the past nine days, the world’s worst streak since the pandemic began. The number of deaths has also increased. More than 200,000 people were killed that week.
Agrawal and two other senior government scientists told Reuters that federal health officials and local officials in Delhi should be better prepared after seeing what the Maharashtra and Punjab variants did. Reuters was unable to determine what specific warnings were being given to whom in preparation for a huge surge.
“We are in a very serious situation,” said Shanta Dutta, a medical researcher at the state’s National Institute for Cholera and Enteric Diseases. “People listen to politicians more than scientists do.”
Rakesh Mishra, director of the Center for Cell and Molecular Biology, which is part of INSACOG, said the country’s scientific community was downcast.
“We could have done better, our science could have gotten more meaning,” he told Reuters. “What we observed in one way or another should have been better used.”