India's surge leads to further global COVID rise as role of variants probed

Healthcare worker at a new quarantine center in India
Healthcare worker at a new quarantine center in India

Sanjoy Karmakar Burdwan / iStock

COVID-19 cases in India last week made up 38% of the global total, and circulation of different variants—not just the B1617 variant that was first detected in the country—appears to be partly fueling the nation's massive surge, the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday in its weekly pandemic snapshot.

India today reported more than 300,000 cases for the eighth day in a row, reaching a new single-day high of 379,459, with 3,647 more deaths, putting its fatality count over the 200,000 mark, according to the country's health ministry.

One major hot spot, and a mixed picture elsewhere

Though cases rose for the ninth week in a row, virus spread shows different patterns in world regions and even among countries. Of the five countries that reported the highest case numbers last week, all but India reported a decline, wwith the United States, Brazil, Turkey, and France all reporting falling numbers.

India reported the biggest increases in cases, with a 52% rise. Other countries that reported spikes of more than 10% include Malaysia (27%), Japan (22%), and Pakistan (17%).

At a briefing today, officials from the WHO's Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said many health systems in South and Central America are still struggling with an influx of patients, against the backdrop of rising infections in younger people who have longer hospital stays. For example, Costa Rica's hospitalizations are at an all-time high and Guatemala's hospitals have reached capacity. And for the first time, Canada's infection rates have passed those of the United States.

PAHO Director Carissa Etienne, MBBS, MSc, urged countries to plan for sudden spikes in use of oxygen, intubation drugs, personal protective equipment, and infusion pumps.

Meanwhile, the WHO said that for global deaths, a lagging indicator, the level last week rose for the sixth week in a row, with the region that includes India reporting the biggest fatality rise.

WHO weighs B1617 impact in India

The WHO's report also included its latest assessment of SARS-CoV-2 variants and what scientists know so far about B1617, which was first detected in India.

B1617 shares several mutations associated with clinical impacts in other variants, including increased transmissibility, reduced neutralization by some monoclonal antibody treatments, and a moderate reduction in post-vaccination sera. However, early lab studies on a small number of samples suggests India's homegrown vaccine Covaxin is able to neutralize the variant.

Regarding spread of B1617 in India, health officials are reporting different patterns in different regions, with the variant circulating alongside others. Taken together, this may be fueling India's COVID resurgence, with spread that is faster and bigger than the country's first wave.

Scientists told the New York Times that different variants seem dominant in different parts of India, with B1617 detected in many samples from Maharashtra state and B117 expanding quickly in New Delhi.

The WHO said other drivers include challenges with implementing and sticking to social measures, as well as cultural, religious, and election-related mass gatherings.

India outbreak developments

In another step to boost supplies of oxygen for hospitals experiencing scarce supplies, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi today approved a plan to buy 100 more portable oxygen concentrators and fund 500 more oxygen plants, according to CNN.

Alongside the many nations that have answered India's calls for help, global corporations and big companies in India are also stepping up to leverage the power of their logistics networks, according to Reuters. For example, Amazon yesterday said it would ship 100 ventilators from the United States, which followed its actions with partners to deliver oxygen concentrators and ventilators from Singapore.

In the country's vaccine developments, officials have opened vaccination to everyone over age 18, with mass vaccinations set to begin in May, though it doesn't yet have enough doses to cover the 600 million people who are becoming eligible, according to Reuters.

In a related development the Serum Institute—which produces the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine—said it would reduce the COVID vaccine price for Indian states, according to CNN.

More global headlines

  • Sri Lanka's government is tightening COVID restrictions, due to rising cases in the wake of new year's celebrations earlier this month, according to CNN. Officials shuttered schools, banned private gatherings, and have asked employers to limit the number of people at work. Elsewhere in the region, Bangladesh took steps to divert industrial oxygen to hospitals and clinics as a precautionary measure due rising COVID activity.

  • One dose of COVID vaccine has the potential to cut household transmission by half, according to a report today from Public Health England. The vaccines included in the study are ones in use in the United Kingdom: Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca/Oxford. In other UK developments, a survey of vaccine attitudes found a drop in enthusiasm for the AstraZeneca vaccine due to rare reports of blood clots, though overall acceptance is high. And the country announced plans to incorporate a vaccine passport into its National Health Service phone app as a way of easing international travel this summer, according to Reuters.

  • The US State Department this week eased COVID-related travel restrictions on students from China and other countries, which applies to those with plans to begin or continue study on Aug 1.

  • The global COVID total today passed 149 million cases and is at 149,011,839, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard. For deaths, the number reached 3,140,970.

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