The brutal spread of covid in India puzzles scientists


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Images of car park cremations, sick people dying outside hospitals or seeking oxygen supplies to save their lives show the hell that the fierce second wave of coronavirus has turned India into. This Saturday, for the third day in a row, the number of infections was higher than that registered anywhere in the world since the pandemic began last year: 346,786, bringing the provisional count to 16,610,481. Hospitals are running short of oxygen, beds and antiviral drugs. In the capital, Delhi, many patients have been turned away because there is simply no room for them anymore. One death is registered every five minutes.

The rapid spread of the pandemic across the Asian country has stunned scientists, who do not understand how the numbers can be so high after just a few months ago antibody data suggested that many people in cities like Delhi and Chennai already they had been infected. According to the statistics, the worst must have already happened. But it’s not like that.

Researchers are trying to find out why the outlook is so bleak. As explained in the magazine
‘Nature’
, could be due to a confluence of factors, such as the appearance of particularly infectious variants, an increase in unrestricted social interactions, and low vaccine coverage.

Family members cry after a man dies outside the coronavirus disease victim ward at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in New Delhi
Family members cry after a man dies outside the coronavirus disease victim ward at Guru Teg Bahadur hospital in New Delhi – Reuters

“A nightmare”

Daily cases in India are the highest on record for any country, up from the peak of 300,000 seen in the US on January 2. The number of cases began to fall in India last September, after a peak of around 100,000 daily infections. But they started to rise again in March and now everything has spilled over. “The second wave has made the last wave look like a wave in a bathtub,” says Zarir Udwadia of the Hinduja Hospital and Medical Research Center in Mumbai in ‘Nature’. It describes a “nightmare” situation in hospitals, where beds and treatments are extremely scarce.

Studies testing antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, an indicator of a past infection, in December and January estimated that more than 50% of the population in some areas of large cities in India had already been exposed to the virus, which should have conferred some immunity. The studies also suggested that, nationally, some 271 million people had been infected, roughly a fifth of India’s population of 1.4 billion.

These figures made some researchers optimistic that if a new wave came it would be less severe, but things are not happening as expected.

Emerging variants

One explanation, they say in Nature, could be that the first wave primarily affected the urban poor. “It is possible that the antibody studies were not representative of the entire population and potentially overestimated exposure in other groups,” they point out. “It is possible that the virus is reaching populations that were previously able to protect themselves,” says Gagandeep Kang, a virologist at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. That could include richer urban communities, in which people isolated themselves during the first wave but began to mix in the second.

Some researchers say the speed and scale of the current outbreak suggest the action of emerging variants of the virus, as this time they are looking at entire families infected. The data shows that variant B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the UK, has become the dominant form of the virus in the Indian state of Punjab. And a new variant first identified in India late last year, known as B.1.617, has become dominant in the state of Maharashtra. B.1.617 contains two mutations that have been associated with increased transmissibility and the ability to evade immune protection. It has been detected in 20 other countries.

Massive weddings

Other researchers point out that many citizens have let their guard down, have begun to travel and interact more, believing that the worst of Covid-19 had already passed and that the arrival of vaccines was going to solve the problem faster than what he is doing it in reality. Less than 10% of the Indian population is vaccinated, primarily from a domestically produced version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine called Covishield. Despite this, crowds have gathered for political, religious and weddings, a lax behavior that may have had dire consequences. In addition, experts warn that some people could have been infected while being vaccinated, since they share the waiting areas in the clinics with the sick who wait to be treated.

Meanwhile, the covid claims lives with the blow of a scythe. The death toll now stands at 189,544, 2,624 more than on Friday, according to official data. In the state of Maharashtra alone, more than 770 fatalities have been registered in the last day.

Dead from lack of oxygen

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the heads of government of the ten states hardest hit by the pandemic on Friday in search of a consensus. Meanwhile, the government is trying to alleviate the oxygen deficiency that is already extreme in some areas and has required the import of generators from Germany. Several hospitals have publicly asked for help to address the surge in patients. One of them is the Jaipur Golden Hospital in New Delhi, where at least 20 people died Thursday from lack of oxygen. There was a delay in the supply and the patients could not hold out. Another 200 people are in critical condition. That is the bleak situation in India.

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