A woman wearing a protective face mask walks past graffiti amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on a street in Mumbai, India, on March 30, 2021.
Francis Mascarenhas | Reuters
India’s second wave of Covid-19 infections shows no signs of slowing as the country’s overstretched health system faces supply shortages of hospital beds, oxygen, drugs and vaccines.
The World Health Organization said last week that every third new coronavirus case worldwide is reported in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for allowing large crowds to gather for religious festivals and election campaigns in different parts of the country. Commentators said the mass gatherings have likely turned into super-spreader events.
The second wave cases increased in February when India reported an average of 10,000 infections per day. However, in April the situation worsened and ended the month repeatedly setting new global records for daily cases. India started May reporting more than 400,000 new cases.
Nearly 7 million cases were reported during the month, a large fraction of the more than 19 million cases India has seen throughout the pandemic, according to the Johns Hopkins University.
Scientists say the increase in cases is partly due to variants of the coronavirus currently circulating in India.
“There are at least two major dominant variants, one is a British variant and one is an Indian variant,” Manoj Murhekar, director of the National Institute for Epidemiology, Chennai, told CNBC on Friday.
The Indian government reportedly said last month that 80% of the cases in Punjab are due to the highly contagious British variant known as B.1.1.7.
The Indian variant is now known as B.1.617 and has several sublines with slightly different characteristic mutations. The WHO classified it as a variant of interest in their epidemiological update on the pandemic last week.
Maharashtra, home to India’s financial capital Mumbai, is the hardest hit state and the epicenter for the second wave.
India’s richest state was put on hold in mid-April to break the chain of transmission. The Maharashtra government reportedly extended the restrictions until May 15.
Murhekar told CNBC that very little is currently known about what proportion of infected cases are due to a variant. He said India needs to step up its surveillance for variants so that it has meaningful data from every region and state that has variants circulating in each region.
Since the start of its mass vaccination campaign in January, India has administered more than 154 million doses of vaccine as of April 30, according to the government.
This means that just over 10% of the population received at least one of the two required shots. However, the percentage of people who completed their vaccination is only about 2% of the total population, and it was around 27.9 million in April.
From May, India will open vaccinations for people over the age of 18.
Murhekar said the kind of herd immunity India needs to reduce transmission can only be achieved through vaccination.
“It will basically take many days and many months before we have a critical mass vaccinated against Covid,” he added.
However, the country is facing vaccine shortages and several states have reportedly run out of supplies.
The supply crisis is expected to last through July, according to the CEO of Serum Institute, a leading Indian vaccine maker that makes AstraZeneca’s shot. Adar Poonawalla recently told the Financial Times that his company would increase vaccine production capacity from about 60 million to 70 million doses per month to 100 million.
The other vaccine that is being given is Covaxin from Bharat Biotech.
New Delhi recently approved Sputnik V, developed in Russia, and approved overseas-made vaccines that have received emergency clearances from the U.S., UK, European Union, Japan and World Health Organization-listed agencies.
– CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed to this report.