NEW DELHI – India said on Tuesday that mutated versions of the coronavirus were not responsible for an increase in cases in the two states, a potential relief for a country where masking and social distancing have largely disappeared.
Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south account for 75% of India’s active cases with around 147,000, and both states have seen a sudden increase in new infections in recent days, raising calls for a faster distribution of vaccines.
India has reported a total of more than 11 million cases – the highest in the world after the United States – and about 156,000 deaths. Current infections have reached close to 300 million in the country of 1.35 billion people, according to a randomized antibody study conducted by the government.
A senior government health official confirmed the long-term presence of two mutants – N440K and E484Q – in those two states, as well as elsewhere in the country and abroad. Authorities have also found the UK variant in 187 people in India, South Africa one in six and one case of the Brazilian mutant.
“There is no reason today for us to believe, based on scientific information, that these are responsible for the outbreak,” Vinod Kumar Paul, who chairs a government committee on vaccines, told a news conference.
“We are constantly monitoring the behavior of mutations in our country.”
Although cases have dropped significantly since the peak of September, Paul said India was still vulnerable, especially given that previously affected cities like Pune in Maharashtra were being hit again. He urged people to wear masks and keep away from social events – instructions thrown open by federal and state ministers.
India has provided nearly 12 million doses to its health and front line workers since the start of the campaign in mid-January, a rate that will need to increase significantly to meet the target of reaching 300 million people by August.
Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said India will soon start immunizing people over the age of 50 and those with medical conditions, with a greater involvement of private hospitals. Government hospitals are now running about 80% of vaccination sites.
The government has recently come under pressure to expand coverage at home given that the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer has exported COVID-19 shots to more than two dozen countries.
India is using one vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech and the Indian State Council for Medical Research, and another licensed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. Other vaccines are in line, including Russia’s Sputnik V and products from Cadila Healthcare and Novavax.
(Report by Krishna N. Das and Neha Arora Edited by Gareth Jones, William Maclean)
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