'Significant risk': New highly-infectious strain emerges in virus-hit nation

·Associate News Editor
·3-min read

Just as India thought it had made a remarkable recovery from a daunting wave of coronavirus infections, its daily cases have begun to surge once more.

At a peak of nearly 100,000 new known cases a day, India – to the shock of many experts – managed to drive down infections to below 10,000 a day in just four months.

And while daily cases are nowhere near the terrifying levels of last year, infections are on the rise and the increase has left experts in the country concerned.

Those fears have been fuelled by the emergence of 240 new strains, and while mutations of the virus are common and to be expected, the director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences says the new strains pose a significant risk to India's population.

People crowd Juhu beach in Mumbai, India, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
People crowd Juhu beach in Mumbai. Health officials have detected a spike in COVID-19 cases in several pockets of Maharashtra state, including in Mumbai, the country's financial capital. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

"Definitely strains that are emerging are more infectious and therefore they are causing more infection," Dr Randeep Guleria told Indian news station NDTV.

He also warned the new strains can cause reinfections in people who have developed antibodies to the virus.

The emergence of highly-infectious strains in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have caused widespread concern globally and triggered several quarantine leaks in Australia and subsequent snap lockdowns for several state capitals.

There are 10,000 people in India who are registered to return to Australia, roughly 25 per cent of all Australians wanting to come home, SBS reported in December.

On Tuesday, Indian officials moved to calm sweeping concern, saying mutated versions of coronavirus were not responsible for an upsurge in cases in two states, a potential relief for a country where mask-wearing and social distancing have largely disappeared.

While infections are nowhere near the daunting highs of September, an uptick has left experts concerned. Source: Worldometers
While infections are nowhere near the daunting highs of September, an uptick has left experts concerned. Source: Worldometers

Maharashtra in the west, which is home to Mumbai, and Kerala in the south account for 75 per cent of India's current active cases of about 147,000, and both states have seen a sudden rise in new infections in recent days, fuelling calls for a faster roll-out of vaccines.

India reports more than 11 million Covid cases

India has reported more than 11 million cases - the most in the world after the US - and about 156,000 deaths. Actual infections have inched closer to 300 million in the country of 1.35 billion, according to a random study of antibodies done by the government.

Vinod Kumar Paul, who heads a government committee on vaccines, said India was still vulnerable, especially given that even previously badly affected cities like Pune in Maharashtra were getting hit again.

He urged people to wear masks and avoid social events - guidelines openly flouted by both federal and state ministers.

The government on Tuesday asked five states, including Maharashtra and Punjab, to expedite vaccination of their healthcare and frontline workers in light of the surge in cases, according to letters shared by the health ministry.

India has given nearly 12 million doses to its health and frontline workers since beginning the campaign in mid-January, a pace that will have to be increased sharply to meet the target of reaching 300 million people by August.

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