Coronavirus: India pins its hopes on vaccines to stop COVID case surge

India on Sunday registered more than 100,000 new COVID cases in 24 hours for the first time since the pandemic began, as a new wave of infections threatens to overwhelm the country’s health care system.

Sunday’s spike makes India the only country besides the United States to record a six-digit number of new COVID cases in a 24-hour period.

The surge continued Monday, with over 96,980 new COVID cases and 446 deaths reported. The western Maharashtra state, home to Mumbai, is at the center of the new outbreak, having registered over 47,200 new cases on Monday.

Shekhar Mande, director general at India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research warned that people need to take precautions to prevent a nationwide surge in cases.

Recently, India’s capital region, Delhi, decided to impose a night curfew after recording over 3500 new infections in a single day.

“All the pandemics in the world have come in the form of waves. We are currently seeing a strong third wave in some European countries, so a third wave cannot be ruled out in India,” Mande told reporters during a remote news conference.

The recent rise in cases has been attributed to an increase in public gatherings and people ignoring COVID containment measures. Many Indians are also experiencing pandemic fatigue a year after coronavirus first emerged in India. New variants and a “double mutation” of the virus are also circulating in India. 

Election season is also underway for over 200 million people in Assam, Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

“Many parts still have a large vulnerable population that is susceptible to contracting an infection. This makes it imperative to follow COVID appropriate behavior, especially wearing a mask when stepping out,” Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, told DW.

How can vaccinations be increased?

Indian virologists have said the surge in cases means it is imperative for health authorities to increase the vaccination rate.

“This requires an increase in vaccine supply, more administration points and convincing people to take the vaccine; at least in areas seeing the surge,” virologist Shahid Jameel told DW.

Jacob John, a renowned virologist and former professor at the Christian Medical College, said that India’s vaccine administration needs to be “unshackled.”

“If you want to put out a forest fire, you get to the source. Similarly, target groups in areas where the infections are surging need to be vaccinated,” John told DW.

“Given the current trajectory of the infections, I see it plateauing only by the end of April,” he added.

There are also concerns that India could reach a point where both the national and global demand for vaccines could overwhelm the domestic manufacturing capacity, putting people everywhere at risk of a longer-lasting pandemic. The Serum Institute of India is a major manufacturer of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and India has been a major exporter of doses.

India’s vaccination drive kicked off on January 16, and the government has set a target of vaccinating 300 million people by July. So far, nearly 83 million doses have been administered.

“What we really need to do is vaccinate everyone, and quickly. We have to open the floodgates and involve everybody,” Arvind Kumar, a physician at Medanta Hospital in Gurugram told DW.

Over the past two weeks India’s daily vaccination rate has increased from 1 to around 2 million doses. Experts say that at this rate, it would take nine months to fully vaccinate 20% of India’s population (275 million people) with two doses.

On April 1, the government opened up vaccinations to anyone over the age of 45, and has mandated that all public and private vaccination centers stay open every day including on Sundays.

India has approved two vaccines: one developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and manufactured by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, and another developed by the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech.

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