South Asian nation battling ferocious second COVID wave added 1.57 million cases and over 15,100 deaths this week alone.
British officials could declare one of the new coronavirus strains first found in India a “variant of concern”, the BBC said, as India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi said the deadly second COVID-19 wave sweeping the country would be “devastating not only for our people but also for the rest of the world”.
The BBC said scientists in the United Kingdom have flagged evidence that the Indian variant of the virus spreads more quickly than its original version, Reuters news agency reported on Friday.
Scientists have recommended that one version of the variant first found in India, known as B.1.617.2, is designated a “variant of concern”, the BBC said, adding more than 500 cases of the variant had been recorded, up from 202 last week.
Public Health England (PHE), which postponed publication of its weekly data on variants on Thursday, had no immediate comment on the report.
Jeff Barrett, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute COVID-19 Genomics Initiative, said that high numbers of cases of B.1.617.2 in Britain and around the world were “consistent with this one being more transmissible than older versions of the virus from last year”.
“(It is) possibly as transmissible as the B.117 Kent variant that is very widespread in the UK,” Barrett said on BBC radio, referring to the strain found in southeast England which fuelled Britain’s second COVID-19 wave.
The original India variant, B.1.617, was first detected in October, but Public Health England (PHE) has categorised three different subtypes, all with slightly different mutations.
WHO says the variant has already spread to more than a dozen countries, forcing nations to cut or restrict movements from India.
Other variants of concern include variants first identified in Kent, southeast England, as well as South Africa and Brazil, and Barrett said that there had been reassuring evidence from real-world studies on the effectiveness of vaccines on those.
“That paints a relatively positive picture that the vaccines are going to continue to have efficacy,” he said.
“So obviously for new variants like this one, we need to do additional experiments and really get the solid proof one way or the other about that.”
Prominent US disease modeller Chris Murray, from the University of Washington, said the sheer magnitude of infections in India in a short period of time suggests an “escape variant” may be overpowering any prior immunity from natural infections.
Infections are now spreading from overcrowded cities to remote rural villages that are home to nearly 70 percent of the 1.3 billion population.
Although northern and western India bear the brunt of the disease, southern India now seems to be turning into the new epicentre. The share of the five southern states in the country’s daily surge in infections rose from 28 percent to 33 percent in the first seven days of May, data shows.
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi, senior leader of India’s Congress Party, implored Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a letter to prepare for another national lockdown, accelerate a countrywide vaccination programme and scientifically track the virus and its mutations.
Gandhi said the world’s second-most populous nation had a responsibility in “a globalised and interconnected world” to stop the “explosive” growth of COVID-19 within its borders.
“India is home to one out of every six human beings on the planet. The pandemic has demonstrated that our size, genetic diversity and complexity make India fertile ground for the virus to rapidly mutate, transforming itself into a more contagious and more dangerous form,” wrote Gandhi.
“Allowing the uncontrollable spread of the virus in our country will be devastating not only for our people but also for the rest of the world.”
On Friday, India reported another record daily rise in coronavirus cases, 414,188, bringing total new cases for the week to 1.57 million. Deaths from COVID-19 rose by 3,915 to 234,083.
Medical experts say the real extent of COVID-19 in India is five to 10 times the official tallies.
In the past week, India has reported an extra 1.5 million new infections and record daily death tolls as its hospitals run out of beds and medical oxygen.
Since the start of the pandemic, it has reported 21.49 million cases and 234,083 deaths. It currently has 3.6 million active cases.
Modi has been widely criticised for not acting sooner to suppress the second wave, after religious festivals and political rallies drew tens of thousands of people in recent weeks and became “super spreader” events.
His government has also been criticised for lifting social restrictions too soon following the first wave and for delays in the country’s vaccination programme, which medical experts say is India’s only hope of controlling the second COVID-19 wave.
While India is the world’s biggest vaccine maker, it is struggling to produce and distribute enough doses to stem the wave of COVID-19.
Modi has stressed that Indian states must keep up vaccination rates. Although the country has administered at least 157 million vaccine doses, its rate of inoculation has fallen sharply in recent days.
“After having achieved a rate of around 4 million a day, we are now down to 2.5 million per day due to vaccine shortages,” Amartya Lahiri, an economics professor at University of British Columbia was quoted as saying in the Mint newspaper.
“The 5 million a day target is the lower bound of what we have to aim for, since even at that rate, it will take a year for us to get everyone two doses. The situation unfortunately is very grim.”
Meanwhile, India’s healthcare system is crumbling under the weight of patients, with hospitals running out of beds and medical oxygen. Morgues and crematoriums cannot handle the number of dead and makeshift funeral pyres burn in parks and car parks.
In the southern city of Chennai, only one in a hundred oxygen-supported beds and two in a hundred beds in intensive care units (ICUs) were vacant on Thursday, from a vacancy rate of over 20 percent each two weeks ago, government data showed.
In India’s tech capital Bengaluru, also in the south, only 23 of the 590 beds in ICUs were vacant, and only 1 in 50 beds with a ventilator were vacant, a situation officials say points to an impending crisis.
The test-positivity rate – the percentage of people tested who are found to have the disease – in the city of 12.5 million has tripled to almost 39% as of Wednesday, from about 13 percent two weeks ago, data showed.
Bengaluru has 325,000 active COVID-19 cases, with demand for ICU and high-dependency unit (HDU) beds up more than 20-fold, said H. M. Prasanna, president of the Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association in Karnataka state, which includes Bengaluru.
“Every patient coming to the hospital needs an ICU or an HDU bed… That is why patients are running from one hospital to another searching for an ICU bed,” he said.
“There is also a short supply of medical oxygen… Most of the small hospitals now who can’t procure oxygen on a daily basis are refusing to admit COVID patients.”