Scientists say India government ignored warnings amid coronavirus surge

Scientists say India government ignored warnings amid coronavirus surge
A patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along the roadside amid Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Ghaziabad on May 1, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 02 May 2021

Scientists say India government ignored warnings amid coronavirus surge

Scientists say India government ignored warnings amid coronavirus surge
  • The warning about the new variant in early March was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium, or INSACOG

NEW DELHI: A forum of scientific advisers set up by the government warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country, five scientists who are part of the forum told Reuters.
Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the federal government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. Millions of largely unmasked people attended religious festivals and political rallies that were held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition politicians.
Tens of thousands of farmers, meanwhile, continued to camp on the edge of New Delhi protesting Modi’s agricultural policy changes.
The world’s second-most populous country is now struggling to contain a second wave of infections much more severe than its first last year, which some scientists say is being accelerated by the new variant and another variant first detected in Britain. India reported 386,452 new cases on Friday, a global record.
The spike in infections is India’s biggest crisis since Modi took office in 2014. It remains to be seen how his handling of it might affect Modi or his party politically. The next general election is due in 2024. Voting in the most recent local elections was largely completed before the scale of the new surge in infections became apparent.
The warning about the new variant in early March was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium, or INSACOG. It was conveyed to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister, according to one of the scientists, the director of a research center in northern India who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reuters could not determine whether the INSACOG findings were passed on to Modi himself.
Modi’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
INSACOG was set up as a forum of scientific advisers by the government in late December specifically to detect genomic variants of the coronavirus that might threaten public health. INSACOG brings together 10 national laboratories capable of studying virus variants.
INSACOG researchers first detected B.1.617, which is now known as the Indian variant of the virus, as early as February, Ajay Parida, director of the state-run Institute of Life Sciences and a member of INSACOG, told Reuters.
INSACOG shared its findings with the health ministry’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) before March 10, warning that infections could quickly increase in parts of the country, the director of the northern India research center told Reuters. The findings were then passed on to the Indian health ministry, this person said. The health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Around that date, INSACOG began to prepare a draft media statement for the health ministry. A version of that draft, seen by Reuters, set out the forum’s findings: the new Indian variant had two significant mutations to the portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, and it had been traced in 15% to 20% of samples from Maharashtra, India’s worst-affected state.
The draft statement said that the mutations, called E484Q and L452R, were of “high concern.” It said “there is data of E484Q mutant viruses escaping highly neutralising antibodies in cultures, and there is data that L452R mutation was responsible for both increased transmissibility and immune escape.”
In other words, essentially, this meant that mutated versions of the virus could more easily enter a human cell and counter a person’s immune response to it.
The ministry made the findings public about two weeks later, on March 24, when it issued a statement to the media that did not include the words “high concern.” The statement said only that more problematic variants required following measures already underway — increased testing and quarantine. Testing has since nearly doubled to 1.9 million tests a day.
Asked why the government did not respond more forcefully to the findings, for example by restricting large gatherings, Shahid Jameel, chair of the scientific advisory group of INSACOG, said he was concerned that authorities were not paying enough attention to the evidence as they set policy.
“Policy has to be based on evidence and not the other way around,” he told Reuters. “I am worried that science was not taken into account to drive policy. But I know where my jurisdiction stops. As scientists we provide the evidence, policymaking is the job of the government.”
The northern India research center director told Reuters the draft media release was sent to the most senior bureaucrat in the country, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who reports directly to the prime minister. Reuters was unable to learn whether Modi or his office were informed of the findings. Gauba did not respond to a request for comment.
The government took no steps to prevent gatherings that might hasten the spread of the new variant, as new infections quadrupled by April 1 from a month earlier.
Modi, some of his top lieutenants, and dozens of other politicians, including opposition figures, held rallies across the country for local elections throughout March and into April.
The government also allowed the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival, attended by millions of Hindus, to proceed from mid-March. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers were allowed to remain camped on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi to protest against new agriculture laws.
To be sure, some scientists say the surge was much larger than expected and the setback cannot be pinned on political leadership alone. “There is no point blaming the government,” Saumitra Das, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, which is part of INSACOG, told Reuters.

STRICT MEASURES NOT TAKEN
INSACOG reports to the National Center for Disease Control in New Delhi. NCDC director Sujeet Kumar Singh recently told a private online gathering that strict lockdown measures had been needed in early April, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by Reuters.
“The exact time, as per our thinking, was 15 days before,” Singh said in the April 19 meeting, referring to the need for stricter lockdown measures.
Singh did not say during the meeting whether he warned the government directly of the need for action at that time. Singh declined to comment to Reuters.
Singh told the April 19 gathering that more recently, he had relayed the urgency of the matter to government officials.
“It was highlighted very, very clearly that unless drastic measures are taken now, it will be too late to prevent the mortality which we are going to see,” said Singh, referring to a meeting which took place on April 18. He did not identify which government officials were in the meeting or describe their seniority.
Singh said some government officials in the meeting worried that mid-sized towns could see law and order problems as essential medical supplies like oxygen ran out, a scenario that has already begun to play out in parts of India.
The need for urgent action was also expressed the week before by the National Task Force for COVID-19, a group of 21 experts and government officials set up last April to provide scientific and technical guidance to the health ministry on the pandemic. It is chaired by V.K. Paul, Modi’s top coronavirus adviser.
The group had a discussion on April 15 and “unanimously agreed that the situation is serious and that we should not hesitate in imposing lockdowns,” said one scientist who took part.
Paul was present at the discussion, according to the scientist. Reuters could not determine if Paul relayed the group’s conclusion to Modi. Paul did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
Two days after Singh’s April 18 warning to government officials, Modi addressed the nation on April 20, arguing against lockdowns. He said a lockdown should be the last resort in fighting the virus. India’s two-month-long national lockdown a year ago put millions out of work and devastated the economy.
“We have to save the country from lockdowns. I would also request the states to use lockdowns as the last option,” Modi said. “We have to try our best to avoid lockdowns and focus on micro-containment zones,” he said, referring to small, localized lockdowns imposed by authorities to control outbreaks.
India’s state governments have wide latitude in setting health policy for their regions, and some have acted independently to try to control the spread of the virus.
Maharashtra, the country’s second-most populous state, which includes Mumbai, imposed tough restrictions such as office and store closures early in April as hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen and medicines. It imposed a full lockdown on April 14.

‘TICKING TIME BOMB’
The Indian variant has now reached at least 17 countries including Britain, Switzerland and Iran, leading several governments to close their borders to people traveling from India.
The World Health Organization has not declared the India mutant a “variant of concern,” as it has done for variants first detected in Britain, Brazil, and South Africa. But the WHO said on April 27 that its early modelling, based on genome sequencing, suggested that B.1.617 had a higher growth rate than other variants circulating in India.
The UK variant, called B.1.1.7, was also detected in India by January, including in the northern state of Punjab, a major epicenter for the farmers’ protests, Anurag Agrawal, a senior INSACOG scientist, told Reuters.
The NCDC and some INSACOG laboratories determined that a massive spike in cases in Punjab was caused by the UK variant, according to a statement issued by Punjab’s state government on March 23.
Punjab imposed a lockdown from March 23. But thousands of farmers from the state remained at protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi, many moving back and forth between the two places before the restrictions began.
“It was a ticking time bomb,” said Agrawal, who is director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, which has studied some samples from Punjab. “It was a matter of an explosion, and public gatherings is a huge problem in a time of pandemic. And B.1.1.7 is a really bad variant in terms of spreading potential.”
By April 7, more than two weeks after Punjab’s announcement on the UK variant, cases of coronavirus began rising sharply in Delhi. Within days, hospital beds, critical care facilities, and medical oxygen began running out in the city. At some hospitals, patients died gasping for air before they could be treated. The city’s crematoriums overflowed with dead bodies.
Delhi is now suffering one of the worst infection rates in the country, with more than three out of every 10 tests positive for the virus.
India overall has reported more than 300,000 infections a day for the past nine days, the worst streak anywhere in the world since the pandemic began. Deaths have surged, too, with the total exceeding 200,000 this week.
Agrawal and two other senior government scientists told Reuters that federal health authorities and local Delhi officials should have been better prepared after seeing what the variants had done in Maharashtra and Punjab. Reuters could not determine what specific warnings were issued to whom about preparing for a huge surge.
“We are in a very grave situation,” said Shanta Dutta, a medical research scientist at the state-run National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. “People listen to politicians more than scientists.”
Rakesh Mishra, director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, which is part of INSACOG, said the country’s scientific community was dejected.
“We could have done better, our science could have been given more significance,” he told Reuters. “What we observed in whatever little way, that should have been used better.”


British Muslim ‘grateful’ after baby born during coma

British Muslim ‘grateful’ after baby born during coma
Updated 10 May 2021

British Muslim ‘grateful’ after baby born during coma

British Muslim ‘grateful’ after baby born during coma
  • Marriam Ahmad told she might not wake up after contracting COVID-19
  • She woke up naturally less than a day after giving birth

LONDON: A British Muslim woman said she is “grateful” for safely having a baby after she was placed in a coma due to complications from contracting COVID-19, describing it as a “miracle.”

Marriam Ahmad, 27, from the Welsh city of Newport, went into hospital in January after testing positive for the disease. 

Ahmad, who was 29 weeks pregnant at the time and suffers from asthma, did not expect to be in hospital long, but her condition deteriorated quickly.

“All of a sudden, my oxygen mask was on a much higher setting — I couldn’t hear properly,” she told the BBC. “It was very loud. I had someone washing my face, looking after me. I was very weak.”

As her condition worsened, she was told that her baby would have to be delivered prematurely by Caesarean section. A few hours later, a decision was made to place her in an induced coma.

She was warned that her baby might not be strong enough to survive, and that she might not wake up from the coma.

“It just happened so quickly. It was within about five minutes, they told me ‘you’re going on a ventilator, you’re having a c-section, the baby’s going to come out, you’ll be unconscious, you might not make it. Say goodbye’,” Ahmad said.

“I facetimed my parents and I was crying. It was only like a two-minute phone call — my mum was like ‘what are you talking about?’ I was lonely and I was scared. I didn’t even speak to my husband or my son.”

Her husband, who was looking after their 1-year-old son Yusuf, was called by a doctor to inform him of developments. Their baby was born on Jan. 18, 2021, weighing just 1.17 kg.

Surprisingly, Ahmad woke from her coma naturally less than a day later — but was unable to see her baby due to their conditions and COVID-19 restrictions. For the next few days, nurses brought Ahmad photos and videos of her baby.

“I had no idea what happened. I woke up — obviously I could see there was nothing in my stomach anymore and I was in a lot of pain,” she said, adding that staff members became deeply invested in her baby’s wellbeing. 

Ahmad and her husband decided to name their daughter Khadija. “In the Islamic faith, Khadija is a very strong, independent woman,” she said.

“From my point of view, my Khadija was very strong. She didn’t have issues, for someone being preterm at 29 weeks. They were telling me all the complications. She didn’t have any of those. It was a miracle.”

Khadija spent eight weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit before she was allowed home. After three and a half months, she weighed nearly 4 kg.

“I am just so grateful — that she’s still alive, that I am still alive,” Ahmad said. “Even though it was such a horrific, traumatic experience, I just found myself being even more grateful for the little things. Just spending time with family.”


UK to introduce checks to prevent terrorists hiring vans

UK to introduce checks to prevent terrorists hiring vans
Updated 10 May 2021

UK to introduce checks to prevent terrorists hiring vans

UK to introduce checks to prevent terrorists hiring vans
  • ‘Shocking’ that additional checks took so long, expert tells Arab News
  • Vehicles used to target bystanders in 2017 London attacks

LONDON: Van owners in Britain will be told to carry out routine checks on people hiring their trucks to prevent vehicle-based terror attacks. 

The guidance, brought in by the British Standards Institution, will expect owners to check references and employment history for evidence of criminal links. 

Vehicles will also be expected to be checked regularly to spot any signs of tampering in a way that could be evidence of preparation for criminal or terrorist acts.

European cities endured multiple incidents of terrorists using vehicles to run over innocent bystanders, such as the Westminster Bridge and London Bridge attacks in March and June 2017, respectively.

The previous summer, a truck rammed into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice. Eighty-six people were killed and hundreds more injured.

Architectural changes have been made to reduce the risk of attacks, with bollards and barriers put in place on bridges and major pedestrian areas in Britain. 

Officials are also aiming to reduce the risk of trucks being used for human trafficking by organized crime gangs.

“This is a long-awaited implementation of recommendations that came out from lessons learned from the Nice attack in 2016, and the London Bridge and Westminster attacks of 2017, recognizing the ease with which terrorists had access to vehicles and the devastating impact they could have. The London Bridge attackers had tried and failed to source a larger vehicle,” former senior British military intelligence officer Philip Ingram told Arab News.

“Daesh and Al-Qaeda channels on encrypted platforms such as Telegram actively encourage the procurement and use of large vehicles for terror purposes,” he added.

“In 2017, Rumiyah, a terror magazine aimed at English-language speakers, talked of the use of vehicles, including trucks, as weapons. It’s shocking that it has taken almost four years to bring in additional checks for hiring larger vehicles.”

Transport Minister Robert Courts said the guidelines will “go a long way to help us in our fight against terrorism and organized crime.”

He added: “Terror attacks and organized crime involving commercial vehicles have had tragic and devastating effects in recent years, with every life lost leaving an unimaginable void in the lives of so many.”


India’s COVID-19 cases dip from peak, calls for shutdown mount

India’s COVID-19 cases dip from peak, calls for shutdown mount
Updated 10 May 2021

India’s COVID-19 cases dip from peak, calls for shutdown mount

India’s COVID-19 cases dip from peak, calls for shutdown mount
  • The 366,161 new infections and 3,754 deaths reported by the health ministry were off a little from recent peaks

NEW DELHI/BENGALURU: Calls grew for India to impose a nationwide lockdown as new coronavirus cases and deaths held close to record highs on Monday, increasing pressure on the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The 366,161 new infections and 3,754 deaths reported by the health ministry were off a little from recent peaks, taking India’s tally to 22.66 million with 246,116 deaths.
As many hospitals grapple with an acute shortage of oxygen and beds while morgues and crematoriums overflow, experts have said India’s actual figures could be far higher than reported.
Sunday’s 1.47 million tests for COVID-19 were this month’s lowest yet, data from the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research showed. The figure compared with a daily average of 1.7 million for the first eight days of May.
The number of positive results from the tests was not immediately clear, however.
Many states have imposed strict lockdowns over the last month while others have placed curbs on movement and shut cinemas, restaurants, pubs and shopping malls.
But pressure is mounting on Modi to announce a nationwide lockdown as he did during the first wave of infections last year.
He is battling criticism for allowing huge gatherings at a religious festival and holding large election rallies during the past two months even as cases surged.
“A failure of governance of epic and historic proportions,” Vipin Narang, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, said on Twitter.
On Sunday, top White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said he had advised Indian authorities they needed to shut down.
“You’ve got to shut down,” Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week” television show. “I believe several of the Indian states have already done that, but you need to break the chain of transmission. And one of the ways to do that is to shut down.”
The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has also called for a “complete, well-planned, pre-announced” lockdown.
New Delhi, the capital, entered a fourth week of lockdown, with tougher curbs such as the shutdown of the suburban rail network, while residents scrambled for scarce hospital beds and oxygen supplies.
“This is not the time to be lenient,” Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Sunday.
“This phase is so tough, this wave is so dangerous, so many people are dying...the priority at this hour is to save lives,” he said in a televised address.
Late on Sunday, the northern state of Uttarakhand said it would impose curfew from Tuesday until May 18, just days after mass religious gatherings held in the state became virus super spreading events.
Shops selling fruits, vegetables and dairy items will stay open for some hours in the morning, while malls, gyms, theaters, bars and liquor shops are among the enterprises that will be shut, the government said.
Organizers of the popular and lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament conceded the remaining games will have to be played overseas after they suspended the contest over the virus this month.
Global support, in the form of oxygen cylinders and concentrators, ventilators and other medical gear, has poured in.
On Monday, US company Eli Lilly and Co. said it signed licensing deals with Indian drugmakers, such as Cipla Ltd., Lupin and Sun Pharma to make and sell its arthritis drug baricitinib for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.
India’s drug regulator has approved the drug for restricted emergency use in combination with remdesivir for hospitalized adult sufferers in need of supplemental oxygen.
By Sunday, the world’s largest vaccine-producing nation had fully vaccinated just over 34.3 million, or only 2.5 percent, of its population of about 1.35 billion, government data shows.


Britain set to ease COVID-19 lockdown

Britain set to ease COVID-19 lockdown
Updated 10 May 2021

Britain set to ease COVID-19 lockdown

Britain set to ease COVID-19 lockdown
  • Rapid vaccination programs have allowed a number of wealthy nations to start taking steps toward normality

LONDON: Britain on Monday was set to announce a further easing of its coronavirus lockdown, joining several European nations in gradually reopening their economies, but India remained in the grip of a devastating outbreak.
Rapid vaccination programs have allowed a number of wealthy nations to start taking steps toward normality, but the virus is still surging in many countries and concerns are growing about global vaccine inequality.
The pandemic has claimed close to 3.3 million lives worldwide and Britain has the highest death toll in Europe, but its successful vaccination program has allowed the authorities to start relaxing curbs.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to announce the latest measures – effective May 17 – in a press conference on Monday, including the reopening of indoor seating in pubs and restaurants.
When asked during a BBC interview Sunday if hugging would be allowed, senior minister Michael Gove said: “Without prejudice to a broader review of social distancing... friendly contact, intimate contact between friends and family is something that we want to see restored.”
Cinemas are also expected to reopen, as well as some large indoor venues after the government held several pilot events – including a rock concert – to test safety measures.
This follows Spain’s lifting of a state of emergency in place since October, allowing people to travel between regions.
“It’s like New Year’s,” said 28-year-old Oriol Corbella in Barcelona, where the end of the curfew was met with shouts, applause and music.
In Germany, people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were exempt from many restrictions from Sunday after the government passed new legislation.
And Cyprus on Monday will exit a third partial lockdown with a new coronavirus “safety pass” system to allow people to move freely.


Afghanistan Taliban plan three-day cease-fire for Eid holiday

Afghanistan Taliban plan three-day cease-fire for Eid holiday
Updated 10 May 2021

Afghanistan Taliban plan three-day cease-fire for Eid holiday

Afghanistan Taliban plan three-day cease-fire for Eid holiday
  • The cease-fire would begin on either Wednesday or Thursday
  • The Afghan government has not yet responded to the Taliban announcement

KABUL: Afghanistan’s Taliban Monday announced a three-day cease-fire for the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday this week marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The cease-fire would begin on either Wednesday or Thursday. The Muslim calendar follows lunar cycles and the Eid holiday depends on the sighting of the new moon.
Justs hours after the pending cease-fire was announced, a bus in southern Zabul province struck a roadside mine killing 11 people, said Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Aeian. At least 24 more people on the bus were injured. Improvised explosive devices litter the countryside and have been used extensively by the Taliban.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said Taliban fighters have been ordered to stop all offensives, “to provide a peaceful and secure atmosphere to our compatriots … so that they may celebrate this joyous occasion with a greater peace of mind.”
The cease-fire announcement comes amid heightened violence in the country and follows a brutal attack on a girls’ school on Saturday that killed as many 60 people, most of them students between 11-15 years old. The death toll from the three explosions continues to climb.
The Taliban denied any responsibility and condemned the attack, which occurred in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in the west of the capital.
Attacks in the area are most often claimed by the Afghan Islamic State affiliate, but no group yet has claimed the attack on the school.
The cease-fire announcement also comes as the US and NATO are withdrawing the last of their military forces. The final 2,500-3,500 American soldiers and roughly 7,000 allied NATO forces will leave by Sept. 11 at the latest.
The Afghan government has not yet responded to the cease-fire announcement.