Understanding what contributed to a second, more intense COVID-19 surge in India can inform the rest of the world on how to avoid a similar surge for this and future pathogens. This outbreak threatens to extend the pandemic itself and drive world-wide infections to new highs, creating an enormous a breeding ground for new and potentially more dangerous viral variants. If variants emerge that are not touched by the current vaccines, the world will be at square one with the pandemic. What a depressing thought.
It appears that the second wave arose due to a combination of three things: 1) India’s relaxing quarantine measures back in January, 2) the emergence of more rapidly spreading viral variants, including one that first appeared in India, and 3) a very poor rollout of vaccines to protect India’s population from spread of the virus. These are further discussed below.
- Relaxed safety measures. India’s second surge came after loosening restrictions, which let public complacency set in, which, in turn, was exacerbated by government officials like Prime Minister Modi and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declaring that the pandemic was defeated. Life returned to normal. Masks went away, as did social-distancing. Weddings and parties resumed, which usually are large events in India. A new season of state-level elections ushered in big political rallies and street parades. A massive religious festival known as the Kumbh Mela took place, bringing an estimated 5 million Hindu pilgrims to the banks of the river Ganges in April. By mid-March, cases started gradually climbing again—then suddenly accelerated, becoming a vertical line rather than an upward sloping curve. The government was slow to respond. It was not until late April that Modi finally acknowledged the urgency of the situation. Local containment measures are beginning to be enacted, including shutting down the capitol of Dehli, and a few Indian states. However, Modi remains reluctant to enact country-wide restrictions like he did during the first wave. Without a more aggressive vaccine campaign, that could be a bad decision.
The more the virus spreads throughout India, and even into its neighboring countries of Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the greater the risk that it will generate more infectious and dangerous viral variants that will not be affected by the current vaccines. If that happens, well vaccinated countries will have to start over. That is not a pleasant prospect, and is further discussed below.
- More infectious viral variants. India’s more deadly second wave of the CoV-2 virus can also be attributed to more infectious and more persistent viral variants. In this second wave, India, like many other countries, has been inundated with viral variants first identified in the UK and South Africa that were recently discussed in these pages. The UK variant has a mutation in its spike protein that makes it more infectious than its parent virus. The South African variant has a different mutation in its spike protein that makes the virus more resistant to some vaccines.
India’s second surge also has introduced the world to a unique viral variant dubbed the "double mutant," which was first identified in October. It is now the dominant strain in the state of Maharashtra, home to India’s financial center, Mumbai.
“Double mutant” is actually a misnomer for this variant since it has 13 mutations throughout its genome. However, it acquired that sobriquet because it has joined the UK and South African spike protein mutations in the same virus. It is a double whammy.
While scientists are still learning about the double mutant variant, India is seeing people who were previously infected become re-infected with this new variant. Also, younger and healthier people are being hospitalized in greater numbers. These observations are concerning. Similar observations of re-infection have also been seen in Brazil with yet another viral variant that was first identified there (more about Brazil in a future post). The ability of viral variants to re-infect people can be an important driver of future pandemic waves even in countries where the population is well vaccinated, but where isolation measures have been lifted or ignored.
For the country overall, the double mutant virus made up 70.4% of the samples collected during the week ending March 25, and that is compared with 16.1% just three weeks earlier, according to Covid CG, a tracking tool from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The tool mines data from the GISAID Initiative, a global database for coronavirus genomes. These data also show that the double mutant virus has already hopped to at least 21 countries including the US. In Australia viral genome sequencing showed that the double mutant made up 40% of the samples collected over the week ending April 15, compared with 16.7% a month earlier. It accounted for 66.7% of samples from New Zealand for the week that ended April 8, up from 20% a month ago. It also has been detected in California, according to Dr. Benjamin Pinsky, director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at Stanford University. Clearly, where the double mutant virus appears, it quickly achieves dominance.
- Poor vaccine distribution. As of 4/30, India had only administered 15 million vaccinations, a tiny proportion of its population of 1.4 billion people. The country is the primary producer of the AstraZeneca vaccine that has run into supply chain problems causing delays in vaccine delivery. In February, Biden signed the Defense Production Act to boost U.S. COVID-19 vaccine production but that decision cut off US exports of raw materials that India needs in order to maintain its vaccine production capabilities. Thus, vaccine makers around the world, including the Serum Institute of India (SII), the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, face a shortage of materials to make COVID-19 vaccines. The ban has garnered much criticism as resource hoarding that threatens global vaccine production. On April 16, SII appealed directly to Biden to lift the embargo of raw material exports so that vaccine production could continue. Several days later, the White House announced it would partially lift the ban for materials the Indian company needed to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine, specifically.
The US also inexplicably has a large stockpile of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, that were made here, even though it is not approved for use in the US. If we are not using it, why not release the stores to the world? The Biden administration also has faced criticism for hoarding these doses that could help India and other countries around the world that also are experiencing a new surge in infections. On Friday, April 30th, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called on Biden release the AstraZeneca vaccines to India and other hard-hit countries.
There is some irony in all of this since India is a huge manufacturer of vaccines and pharmaceuticals for the world, and likes to bill itself as the “pharmacy of the world.” India produces 60 percent of the world’s vaccines, but cannot supply its own country, partly because of reduced production due to the supply chain problems, but also because it failed to order sufficient vaccine doses. India almost completely halted vaccine exports last month in order to divert supplies to its domestic population, which is affecting supply in the rest of the world. Rather than rely on its own manufacturers for vaccines, India approved Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, and has fast-tracked the approval process for other vaccines manufactured in foreign countries. That means that while the industrialized world was being vaccinated with vaccines produced in India, the country was still looking at approving foreign-made vaccines for use in its country.
Bottom line. The combination of relaxed safety protocols, the appearance of deadlier viral variants, and poor distribution of vaccines to its people has left the country as the world’s epicenter for the pandemic. As the virus races through its huge population, all of this provides an enormous breeding ground for new variants to arise, which is worrisome even for countries that have had successful vaccine rollouts and have begun to see reduced viral spread. Let us hope this is not a perfect storm for restarting the pandemic with vaccine-resistant variants.
And India is not the only problem. In Africa, vaccination is also off to a slow start. Just 6m doses have been administered in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than in New Jersey. Just 1% of African adults have received a first jab, versus a global average of 13%. Prepare for Africa to become the next hot-spot and breeding ground for troublesome variants, if Brazil and South America do not beat them to the punch.
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