A police officer tries to control a crowd outside a wine store after Delhi government ordered a six-day lockdown. (REUTERS)
A police officer tries to control a crowd outside a wine store after Delhi government ordered a six-day lockdown. (REUTERS)

Covid-19: What you need to know today

Among the burning topics of discussion in the international scientific community right now is the nature of behaviour of the strain of the virus with the double mutation (B.1.617) that was first identified in India.
By R Sukumar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON APR 20, 2021 04:15 AM IST

No one should be writing letters (or, for that matter, columns, other than people whose job it is to) in the midst of the pandemic.

There’s work to be done, and because such is the nature of governance — the others can volunteer, and do good, if they want to, but are unlikely to have as much impact as the State — much of it will have to be done by those in power, in the Centre and the states.

I’m sure some of these are already being done, but since epistolary duties can be distracting, here is a quick list of what needs doing — right now. This is important not just to help India tide over this wave of the coronavirus disease pandemic, but to also prepare it for the next. That a lot of what follows wasn’t done (or wasn’t done at scale) is evident from the crisis on our hands. Daily cases are nearing 300,000. Only one country, the US, has seen more, and that too on only one day. We look set to beat the record. Deaths are already at record highs (with the exception of one day last June when both Delhi and Maharashtra deemed it fit to get their death numbers in order). Hindustan Times has reported from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (bit.ly/3eujgCf; bit.ly/2REevOs) that there is a clear disconnect between the fatalities claimed by the state (and therefore, those on the HT dashboard) and the numbers being reported by local crematoriums and graveyards. Everything is in short supply — oxygen, ICU beds, and ambulances. I’m not mentioning Remdesivir, because despite India’s obsession with it, there is really no evidence proving its effectiveness or that of plasma (the research in this case is quite clear: it doesn’t work for Covid-19).

Provoked by a piece in Scroll.in that pointed out that a plan to install 162 oxygen plants in district hospitals in India — something that would have definitely helped at a time like this — wasn’t going to script (https://scroll.in/article/992537/india-is-running-out-of-oxygen-covid-19-patients-are-dying-because-the-government-wasted-time), the health ministry pointed out that 33 are ready, and that another 47 will be ready by the end of May (with 26 of these being completed by the end of April). That’s just around half the planned number. The story refers to an announcement made last week by the government about a plan to set up another 100 oxygen plants. Even as everyone comes together to address the current oxygen shortage, it is important to keep an eye on this. India needs those oxygen plants.

The other thing it desperately needs to do is sequence more viral genomes. Among the burning topics of discussion in the international scientific community right now is the nature of behaviour of the strain of the virus with the double mutation (B.1.617) that was first identified in India. Another topic of discussion is either the rampant gaming of RT-PCR tests by passengers flying out of India or the poor quality of Indian RT-PCR tests. Hong Kong, on Monday, banned flights from India till May 3 after a large number of passengers on a flight from Mumbai tested positive. If India doesn’t address both issues immediately, it may face similar bans from other countries. Canada, for instance, is reporting similar problems with passengers from India.

Also read: Capital back in lockdown

And finally, with cases surging, India has to take a hard call on vaccines. At least 90% of those eligible for their second shots of the vaccine between now and May 31 have been administered Covishield. There’s enough scientific evidence to show that: one, even one dose gives people a much better chance at fighting off severe infections; and two, a three-month gap between the first and second dose of Covishield does not reduce the vaccine’s efficacy. According to HT’s calculations, this number is 71.3 million. In addition, assuming an aggressive target of 4 million vaccinations a day (the government, till a few weeks ago, was speaking about 5 million, but that looks unlikely), 100.7 million people will get their first doses in this period (April 20-May 31). That will take the total number of people who have received at least once dose of vaccine in India to 278.4 million by the end of May.

The government’s move to open up supply of vaccines, and expand the eligibility criteria to everyone over the age of 18 years (long delayed, but it came finally on Monday) from May 1 will help meet this target, perhaps even exceed it. At that number, the results, in terms of a fall in infections (or, at the least, hospitalisations), will start making themselves evident.

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