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.”


Millions of Americans risk eviction as coronavirus cases spike

Millions of Americans risk eviction as coronavirus cases spike
Updated 01 August 2021

Millions of Americans risk eviction as coronavirus cases spike

Millions of Americans risk eviction as coronavirus cases spike
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention feared homelessness would boost coronavirus infections

WASHINGTON: Millions of Americans could find themselves homeless starting Sunday as a nationwide ban on evictions expires, against a backdrop of surging coronavirus cases and political fingerpointing.
With billions in government funds meant to help renters still untapped, President Joe Biden this week urged Congress to extend the 11-month-old moratorium after a recent Supreme Court ruling meant the White House could not do so.
But Republicans balked at Democratic efforts to extend the eviction ban through mid-October, and the House of Representatives adjourned for its summer vacation Friday without renewing it.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said blocking the measure was “an act of pure cruelty... leaving children and families out on the streets,” in a tweet late Saturday.
Several left-wing Democrats had spent the night outside the Capitol in protest — calling out their colleagues over the failure to act.
“We slept at the Capitol last night to ask them to come back and do their jobs. Today’s their last chance,” tweeted Congresswoman Cori Bush, who has herself experienced homelessness and was joined by fellow progressives Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.
With the clock ticking down to Sunday, the country was braced for a heartbreaking spectacle — families with their belongings at the curbside wondering where to go.
One of those at risk is Terriana Clark, who was living out of a car with her husband and two stepchildren for much of last year, before finding a teaching job and an apartment in Harvey, Louisiana.
Jobless again and struggling to pay rent after a bout of illness, the 27-year-old told The New Orleans Advocate she applied to a local assistance program four months ago, but is still waiting for help.
“If it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t,” she told the paper. “It’s going to be too late for a lot of people. A lot of people are going to be outside.”
Up north in Michigan, Mary Hunt, who makes minimum wage driving a medical taxi, likewise fell behind on her rent on a mobile home because she got sick with COVID-19.
She was served with eviction papers, and frets over what she will do with her stuff and her five cats and one dog.
“How do I choose which cats to keep? It’s not going to happen. I’m not going to leave any of them behind,” Hunt told National Public Radio this week.
“If I lose this house, then they go in the car with me. And people can think I’m a crackpot, but I’m not giving up my family,” Hunt said.
Unlike other pandemic-related aid that was distributed from Washington, such as stimulus checks, it was states, counties, and cities that were responsible for building programs from the ground up to dole out assistance earmarked for renters.
The Treasury Department said that as of June, only $3 billion in aid had reached households out of the $25 billion sent to states and localities in early February, less than three weeks after Biden took office.
Pelosi in another tweet Saturday urged “state and local governments to immediately disburse the $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance approved by the Democratic Congress so that many families can avoid eviction.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered the eviction moratorium in September 2020, as the world’s largest economy lost over 20 million jobs amid the pandemic shutdowns. The CDC feared homelessness would boost coronavirus infections.
Although more than half of those jobs were since recovered, many families still have not caught up on missed rent payments.
The Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse survey showed that of 51 million renters surveyed, 7.4 million were behind on rent and nearly half of those said they risked being evicted in the next two months.
Nearly 80 percent of households that are behind on their rent as of early July lived in COVID-19 hot spots, according to a study by the Jain Family Institute.
“Putting people out on the street is probably not going to have good effects on community transmission rates,” the institute’s housing policy researcher Paul Williams told CBS MoneyWatch.
Immediately after taking over, the Biden administration had eased paperwork and eligibility requirements for an emergency rental assistance program, but it has stressed that management remains in the hands of state and local officials.
“There can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants that have been hurt during this pandemic,” Biden warned Friday.
The CDC eviction moratorium and other protections prevented an estimated 2.2 million eviction filings since March 2020, said Peter Hepburn, a research fellow at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.


Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years
Updated 01 August 2021

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years

Myanmar junta chief says new elections in two years
  • Country has been in turmoil since the army ousted Aung San Suu Kyi in February
  • A resurgent virus wave has also amplified havoc, with many hospitals empty of pro-democracy medical staff

YANGON: Myanmar’s junta chief said Sunday that elections would be held and a state of emergency lifted by August 2023, extending the military’s initial timeline given when it deposed Aung San Suu Kyi six months ago.
The country has been in turmoil since the army ousted the civilian leader in February, launching a bloody crackdown on dissent that has killed more than 900 people according to a local monitoring group.
A resurgent virus wave has also amplified havoc, with many hospitals empty of pro-democracy medical staff, and the World Bank has forecast the economy will contract by up to 18 percent.
In a televised address junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said “we will accomplish the provisions of the state of emergency by August 2023.”
“I pledge to hold multiparty elections without fail,” he added.
The general’s announcement would place Myanmar in the military’s grip for nearly two and a half years — instead of the initial one-year timeline the junta announced days after the coup.
The army has justified its power grab by alleging massive fraud during 2020 elections won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in a landslide, and has threatened to dissolve the party.
Last week it canceled the results of the polls, announcing it had uncovered over 11 million instances of voter fraud.
Suu Kyi has been detained since February 1 and faces an eclectic raft of charges — from flouting coronavirus restrictions to illegally importing walkie talkies — which could see her jailed for more than a decade.
Across Myanmar small groups of demonstrators marched Sunday, six months after soldiers launched their putsch with pre-dawn raids, ending a decade-long experiment with democracy.
Protesters in the northern town of Kale held banners reading “strength for the revolution” while demonstrators let off flares at a march in the commercial capital Yangon.
Tens of thousands of civil servants and other workers have either been sacked for joining rallies or are still on strike in support of a nationwide civil disobedience campaign.
The NLD saw their support increase in the 2020 vote compared to the previous election in 2015.
In a report on the 2020 polls, the Asian Network for Free Elections monitoring group said the elections were “by and large, representative of the will of the people.”


Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan, flights suspended

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan, flights suspended
Updated 48 min 25 sec ago

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan, flights suspended

Rockets hit Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan, flights suspended

KANDAHAR: At least three rockets struck Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan overnight, an official told AFP on Sunday, as the Taliban pressed on with their sweeping offensive across the country.
“Last night three rockets were fired at the airport and two of them hit the runway... Due to this all flights from the airport have been canceled,” airport chief Massoud Pashtun told AFP.
Pashtun said work to repair the runway was underway and expected the airport to be operational later on Sunday.
An official at the civil aviation authority in Kabul confirmed the rocket attack.
The Taliban have for weeks launched withering assaults on the outskirts of Kandahar, stirring fears that the insurgents were on the verge of capturing the provincial capital.
Kandahar’s air base is vital to providing the logistics and air support needed to keep the militants from overrunning Afghanistan’s second-biggest city.
The attack on the airport came as the Taliban inched closer to overrunning two other provincial capitals — Herat in the west and Lashkar Gah in the south.
The Taliban’s significant territorial gains during the final stages of the US military withdrawal have largely been in sparsely populated rural areas.
But in recent weeks they have brought increasing pressure on several provincial capitals and seized key border crossings.
The capture of any major urban center would take their current offensive to another level and fuel concerns that the army is incapable of resisting the Taliban’s battlefield gains.
The government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban’s steady territorial gains over the summer as lacking strategic value.


US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path
Updated 01 August 2021

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path

US presses Tunisia’s president for swift return to democratic path
  • Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, freeze parliament

WASHINGTON: US national security adviser Jake Sullivan urged Tunisia's president on Saturday to outline a swift return to the "democratic path" following his seizure of governing powers last Sunday, the White House said.
Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic and poor governance to dismiss the prime minister, freeze parliament and seize executive control in a move welcomed by street rallies but which his opponents branded a coup.
In a phone call, Sullivan underscored to Saied the need for "rapidly forming a new government, led by a capable prime minister to stabilize Tunisia’s economy and confront the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ensuring the timely return of the elected parliament," the White House National Security Council said in a statement.


US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
Updated 01 August 2021

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
  • Washington’s strategy to deploy the heavily armed planes a ‘worrying sign’

KABUL: A US B-52 bomber has pounded Taliban positions in Afghanistan’s western Herat province after the group gained ground near the area amid intense clashes with government forces, officials and lawmakers said on Saturday.

The strike took place on the outskirts of Herat city on Friday, with flights to and from the area suspended after increased violence near its airport.

“Unfortunately, all flights to Herat have been canceled due to the fighting and the information we have received suggest that a B-52 was used in the fighting yesterday (Friday) in Herat,” provincial lawmaker Habib Ur Rahman Pedram told Arab News.

No further details were given, such as the number of casualties or the scale of the attack.

Violence has surged across Afghanistan since May 1, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive as the US began its troop withdrawal after 20 years of occupation.

In recent weeks, the group has captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

The Taliban have reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

Friday’s attack by the US military marks the second time in less than two weeks that it has deployed the long-range, nuclear-capable plane against the Taliban from distant bases after US-led troops cut vital air support for overstretched Afghan forces.

A B-52 was also sighted in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of southern Helmand province, and the scene of intense fighting between Taliban and government forces, “but appeared to have not carried out any attack on Friday,” Helmand lawmaker Mirwais Khadem told Arab News.

According to security sources from the adjacent Kandahar province, the heavily armed plane hit a group of Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak bordering Pakistan two weeks ago as well, “killing scores of them.”

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid could not confirm whether the B-52 was used to attack the group across Afghanistan.

BACKGROUND

• In recent weeks, Taliban have captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

• The group has reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

But he told Arab News that the Taliban had “tightened the net on government forces around Herat city, in Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar city” in recent days.

Khadem confirmed Mujahid’s accounts, adding that the Taliban had taken over two districts within Lashkar Gah after “heavy fighting for successive days.”

“Government helicopters have hit the Taliban,” the lawmaker added. “People have been displaced and largely heading to Taliban-held areas as the situation in the city is not good.”

The US military in Afghanistan was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday, while Afghan officials refused to discuss the decision to reinstate the B-52 to curb Taliban advances.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told Arab News that “government forces had foiled Taliban’s attacks on the three cities and the enemy has suffered heavy losses.”

B-52 bombers played a crucial role in toppling the Taliban from power in late 2001, with the US using its bases in the Gulf to deploy the plane.

The strategy to deploy the B-52 appears to be a military necessity, as over-stretched Afghan troops are struggling to prevent the loss of more territory and provincial capitals to the Taliban and avoid the potential for renewed civil war without foreign forces to protect the Kabul government.

The clashes in Herat and Kandahar have forced tens of thousands of residents to flee to safer grounds, with government estimates placing the number of families displaced by the surge in violence since early May at more than 40,000.

During Friday’s fighting, the UN’s main compound in Herat came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, according to a statement from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

“This attack against the United Nations is deplorable, and we condemn it in the strongest terms,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.

The halt of flights to Herat and the reuse of the B-52 were “worrying signs of an escalation in insecurity” across Afghanistan, according to security analyst and retired colonel Mohammad Hassan.

“It is getting worse day by day here,” he told Arab News. “The cancelation of flights to Herat and the fact that America has back started using B-52 are not good signs. It will cause more panic among people at large and shows the precariousness of the situation.”