India Blames Covid-19 Variant for its Pandemic Crisis


Doctors, the public and the media point to anecdotal evidence of infections even among the vaccinated. Scientists say the data is too thin and cite other reasons behind the country’s second wave.


NEW DELHI — At Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, a huge facility in the middle of India’s capital, 37 fully vaccinated doctors came down with Covid-19 earlier this month.

The infections left most with mild symptoms, but it added to their growing fears that the virus behind India’s catastrophic second wave is different. They wonder if a more contagious variant that dodges the immune system could be fueling the epidemic inside the world’s hardest-hit nation.

So far the evidence is inconclusive, and researchers caution that other factors could explain the viciousness of the outbreak, which has overwhelmed India’s capital so quickly that hospitals are entirely overrun and crematories burn nonstop. Still, the presence of the variant could complicate the taming of India’s Covid-19 disaster.

“The current wave of Covid has a different clinical behavior,” said Dr. Sujay Shad, a senior cardiac surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, where two of the doctors needed supplemental oxygen to recover. “It’s affecting young adults. It’s affecting families. It’s a new thing altogether. Two-month-old babies are getting infected.”

India’s outbreak worsened even further on Wednesday, as the authorities reported nearly 3,300 daily deaths. That brings the official total to nearly 201,200 people lost, though experts believe the true figure is much higher. Daily new infections also surged to nearly 357,700, another record.

As supplies run dangerously low and hospitals are forced to turn away the sick, scientists are trying to determine what role variants of the virus might be playing. They are working with precious little data. India, like many other countries, has not built up a robust system to track viruses.

Researchers say other factors could lead to more infections among young people, such as India’s schools, which had started reopening in recent months after the country’s first wave.

The variant in India is sometimes called “the double mutant,” though the name is a misnomer because it has many more mutations than two. It garnered the name because one of its three versions contains two genetic mutations found in other difficult-to-control variants of the coronavirus. One is present in the highly contagious variant that ripped through California earlier this year. The other is similar to one found in the variant first identified in South Africa and is believed to make the vaccines slightly less effective.

“There are variants that are more transmissible than what we all coped with a year ago,” Dr. Barrett said of the many variants circulating in India. “Things can change really quickly, so if a country doesn’t react quickly enough, things can go from bad to very bad very quickly.”

Scientists say that different variants seem to dominate specific parts of India. For instance, the B.1.617 variant has been detected in a large number of samples from the central state of Maharashtra.

By contrast, the B.1.1.7 variant is rising quickly in New Delhi, said Dr. Sujeet Singh, director of India’s National Centre for Disease Control. It was prevalent in half of samples evaluated at the end of March, up from 28 percent just two weeks before. The B.1.617 variant is also circulating in New Delhi, he added.

But ultimately, the data from India is too thin to parse the distribution of variants around the country. Despite the huge number of new infections, India is performing very little genomic sequencing.

At Sir Ganga Ram hospital, the 37 doctors who became infected after immunization had received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine between late January to early February and then their second dose four to six weeks after that. The hospital employs about 500 doctors.

Dr. Shad, the cardiac surgeon, was reluctant to jump to conclusions about variants breaking through the immunizations. “I don’t think anyone has the serological data” to answer that, he said.

A broad lack of data plagues the scientific chase for variants and whether they are contributing to the severity of India’s crisis. Fast-moving mutations complicate the picture because it isn’t immediately clear how quickly they spread or how they respond to vaccines.

In India, the health care system wasn’t on alert for the impact of variants at home, even as they began to spread globally, said Dr. Thekkekara Jacob John, a senior virologist in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

“We were not looking for variants at all,” he said. “In other words, we missed the boat.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.



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