Covid-19 outbreak in India: new variant is not solely responsible

India is collapsing. With the highest daily average of cases recorded in the world to date – 300,000 – the country has become potentially dangerous for the entire planet, as it could become the birthplace of new strains of the coronavirus. But the new variant is not the only one responsible for the Covid-19 outbreak that has been killing approximately 2,500 people a day in the country – a figure released by Johns Hopkins University.

India’s problem

India has almost 1.4 billion inhabitants. In comparative terms with Brazil, there are 6.5 times more people in a territory of less than half of ours. This population density, combined with low vaccination – only 10% of the population was vaccinated – and low hospital capacity, led the Asian country into chaos, with a lack of oxygen, beds and medicines.

At the beginning of the year, the average number of new coronavirus cases in India was below 20,000 per day. The situation of relative calm has led authorities to release activities such as large religious gatherings on the banks of the River Ganges. The exponential increase in cases and deaths was seen from the second half of March: there are currently 13 times more cases per day.

The Kumbh Mela festival brings together millions of people in India.The Kumbh Mela festival brings together millions of people in India.Source: Pixabay

At first, the suspicion for the increase in cases was the variant found for the first time in the country, B. 1.617. Discovered in October 2020, B. 1.617 has a double mutation, that is: two changes in the original virus. This at first seemed shocking to laypeople, but it proved to be quite common in the evolution of a virus.

According to scientists recently heard by the Financial Times, there is no way of knowing if the variant is responsible for the new coronavirus outbreak, since India has performed few genome sequencing in relation to the size of its population, which would be the only way to track evolution of the strain.

Is the variant in India more dangerous?

“Despite the increase in cases in this second Indian wave, there is simply not enough evidence to blame the variants,” said Nancy Jaser, an infectologist at GlobalData, a company that tracks and analyzes mutations in the virus.

The extent of involvement of variant B. 1,617 in the Indian outbreak remains unknown, although it accounts for about two-thirds of the few genomes sent by the country to the global GISAID database.

India has sequenced few genomes.India has sequenced few genomes.Source: Pixabay

Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Cambridge Genomics Covid-19 Initiative, pointed out that India is dealing with several variants at the same time, such as Britain’s B.1.1.7 – which scientists have concluded to be more transmissible. “There is some evidence of several overlapping epidemics happening in India, rather than a monolithic outbreak,” said Barrett. “Which makes sense, since it is a huge and heterogeneous country,” he said.

There are also genomic data obtained in the United Kingdom: “The fact that the variant originated in India has not spread across the United Kingdom, even though it has been in the territory since February, suggests that it is not as transmissible as B.1.1.7”, he explained Barrett.

What could have caused the Covid-19 outbreak in India?

In addition to the variations present in the country, the limited capacity of hospitals and low vaccination rates, decisions by leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which allowed major religious and political events, may have influenced.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto, asking Indians to stay at home.Photo by Ketut Subiyanto, asking Indians to stay at home.Source: Pexels

For Michael Head, senior global health researcher at Southampton University, UK, “it is the mix of susceptible populations that leads to the transmission of respiratory infections.”

Head pointed out as possible responsible for the outbreak the mass meetings in India in March and April, resulting from political campaigns, cricket matches between India and England – with crowded stadiums and few wearing masks – and religious festivals like Kumbh Mela, which brought together millions of people.

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