UK strain behind surge in Punjab’s Covid cases
The high presence of the UK strain of Covid-19 has led to a steep rise in active cases in Punjab with the state already registering a bigger surge in cases this time as compared to the first wave last year.
Though the state health department is still not sure if the strain, which spreads 70% faster, made its way to Punjab through travellers from the United Kingdom, the government is considering its high prevalence as the prime reason for the spike. 80% of samples of Covid positive people sent for genome sequencing to the Pune laboratory in March were found having the UK strain. The strain was found in 10 of the 22 districts of Punjab with a maximum of 106 samples belonging to Mohali district. This was followed by Amritsar (94), Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar (56), Faridkot (18) and Patiala (15).
How the UK strain bumped up cases
“During our meetings with the Government of India as well, we haven’t heard much about the high presence of the UK strain in other states as is there in Punjab. So obviously the strain can be termed as the main reason behind the faster surge,” state principal secretary, health and family welfare, Hussan Lal said.
According to the Union health ministry data released on Saturday, Covid-19 cases increased 12-fold in Punjab between February 3 and April 3 at a rate that surpasses Maharashtra’s nine-fold case growth rate during the period.
The faster rate of infection due to this strain can be judged from the fact that in the past one week, the state has added more than 20,000 new cases. When the state had hit the peak in September last year, the maximum single-day hike was of 2,896 infections on September 17. With experts predicting the second wave peak in the third week of April, the state has already broken last year’s records by registering a single-day hike of 3,176 cases on March 26.
In the past week, the state’s ratio of active cases reached 10%, which is the highest ever of the first and the current wave.
In September, Punjab saw a single-day spike of more than 2,000 cases a day on nine occasions, in this wave, between March 15 to April 3, the state has seen more than 2,000 cases for 12 occasions.
SBS Nagar, where the maximum cases of the UK strain were detected, has at present the highest number of active cases of 3,414 in Punjab, followed by 3,297 in Amritsar, which is at the second spot in terms of the presence of the UK strain.
NRI belt bears the brunt, more samples sent
Punjab nodal officer for Covid-19 Dr Rajesh Bhaskar said that inappropriate Covid behaviour along with the UK strain of the virus is the second major reason behind the surge in cases.
“You will notice that in Jalandhar, where less presence of the UK strain was found, cases are very high. The same is the case with Patiala and Hoshiarpur. To understand this better, we are sending 400 more Covid samples for genome sequencing,” Dr Bhaskar said.
The Doaba belt, comprising the four districts of Jalandhar, SBS Nagar, Hoshiarpur and Kapurthala, account for 25% of Punjab’s Covid cases in the second wave.
Jalandhar civil surgeon Dr Balwant Singh said the UK strain is the biggest reason behind the surge and has mainly hit Phillaur and Nurmahal towns that reported a high number of cases and have now been turned into containment zones. Similarly, Hoshiarpur, where 31 cases of the UK strain were detected, has seen a sharp increase in Covid deaths with nearly 100 fatalities in the past two weeks.
Procedures flouted by visitors could be cause
The state authorities are not sure how the UK strain reached Punjab and if the non-resident Indians (NRIs) brought it to Doaba, the winter hub of foreign visitors with almost every family having relatives abroad.
The state’s principal secretary, health, says the department has been tracking NRIs and foreign travellers. Apart from allowing their boarding only after the RT-PCR test, the travellers undergo the test again on arrival, he said.
Before international flights from the UK were suspended by India in February due to the strain, Punjab had eight UK returnees tested for the strain, but it was not found in any case.
The samples that tested positive for the UK strain were randomly taken from containment zones where a high number of Covid-19 cases surfaced.
The head of Punjab’s expert group on Covid-19, Dr KK Talwar, said since the strain has originated from the UK, it could have come from foreign shores only. “Someone must have brought it from outside. We follow set procedures to quarantine foreign travellers but the way people flout the procedures can be the reason behind the presence of the strain,” Dr Talwar said.
No data on number of positive travellers
The health department does not have the exact data of foreign visitors that landed in Punjab over the past three months. “Even as all districts have been asked to provide the data about NRIs and foreign travellers, half of them have not reported it yet,” a senior official said, requesting anonymity.
In view of the surge in the mutant variants of Covid in Punjab, the Centre had directed the Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport, Amritsar, authorities in February to conduct the RT-PCR test on each and every passenger arriving from Europe, especially from the UK and West Asia.
According to the airport authorities, 22,561 passengers from such countries were tested for Covid-19 from February 23 to April 2. How many of them were found positive is not known.
Districts with high active Covid cases