The recent surge of COVID-19 cases in many countries, including China, America, and Japan has renewed global concerns over a possible resurgence of the pandemic. Variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continue to emerge across many parts of the world. In view of the increasing cases, the Indian government has cautioned alert to its citizens.
Ever since China relaxed its “zero COVID” restrictions, the country is registering a massive increase in cases. Cumulative deaths in China since December 1 likely reached 100,000, while infections totalled 18.6 million, as per a UK-based health data firm. As per official data released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the death toll has risen to 5,247 as on December 30.
After detecting several cases of the BF.7 variant of Omicron, which is driving the surge in cases in China, the Indian government has stepped up measures against the virus. The BF.7 variant has the strongest infection ability of all Omicron sub-variants like BA.1 and BA.2. The rise in cases has caused an alarm among people about whether there will be a fresh wave of Covid-19 in India.
The next 40 days are going to be crucial as India may see a surge in COVID-19 cases in January, official sources from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said on December 28, citing the pattern of previous outbreaks. Previously, it has been noticed that a new wave of COVID-19 hits India around 30-35 days after it hits East Asia.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on December 29 that it remains concerned over the evolving situation in China. The WHO also expressed concern about the increasing reports of severe disease. However, despite the caution, the WHO believes that 2023 may start seeing the end of the COVID-19 pandemic as a global health emergency. Last week, the WHO chief said that he is “hopeful” that the COVID-19 pandemic will no longer be considered a global health emergency next year.
The surge in China
China ended its Covid Zero policy about a month ago, abandoning the strict testing and lockdown measures embraced by it since the start of the pandemic almost three years ago. The resulting outbreaks have been difficult to gauge without an accurate count, forcing observers to rely on outside estimates and anecdotal evidence.
Millions of new cases are being reported from China currently, according to estimates. Major cities including Shanghai and Beijing are reeling under rapidly increasing infections. Daily infections are currently at around 1.8 million, with mortalities at 9,000, as per Airfinity, a London-based research firm that focuses on predictive health analytics. The estimates are based on data from China’s regional provinces, which had reported numbers far higher than official national figures, combined with trends seen in Hong Kong, Japan and other countries when they lifted strict restrictions. Cumulative deaths in China since 1 December have likely reached 100,000, with infections totalling 18.6m, as per these estimates.
Countries begin imposing restrictions on travellers
In the absence of comprehensive information from China, many countries around the world are imposing restrictions on travellers to protect their populations.
The Indian Health Ministry has said that passengers travelling to India from China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand will have to undergo mandatory Covid-19 tests in their countries before departure. Travellers have to undergo RT-PCR test before departure and upload the report on Air Suvidha portal from 1 January 2023. This is in addition to the 2 percent random testing of all international passengers on their arrival to the airport. As per the health ministry’s Covid bulletin on Thursday, the country recorded 268 new coronavirus infections, while the active cases increased to 3,552.
The US CDC has also begun implementing a requirement for a negative COVID-19 test or documentation of recovery for air passengers boarding flights to the United States originating from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
Lack of Transparency in shared COVID-19 data
The above measures taken by countries are in the context of a lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data being reported from China.
Reduced testing and case reporting in China and minimal sharing of viral genomic sequence data could delay the identification of new variants of concern if they arise.
Last week, the WHO called on China to share the data requested by it to better understand the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO chief said that in order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the Covid situation on the ground in China, the WHO needs more detailed information.
“Gaps in our understanding of post COVID19 condition mean we don’t understand how best to treat people suffering with the long-term consequences of infection. Gaps in our understanding of how this pandemic began compromise our ability to prevent future pandemics,” WHO chief said during a weekly press briefing.
Impact on India
India confirmed its first case of Omicron’s XBB.1.5 in Gujarat this December, Insacog data showed. XBB.1.5 is a sub-variant that international scientists have flagged for being responsible for a surge in Covid cases and hospitalisations in New York. XBB itself is a recombinant of two different BA.2 sub-variants of Omicron. But its descendant, XBB.1.5, is believed to have a tighter bind to the ACE2 receptor, which would explain its higher level of transmissibility, according to US scientist Eric Topol.
India recorded 243 new coronavirus infections, raising the tally to 4.46 crore, while the active cases have increased to 3,609, according to Union health ministry data updated on Dec 30
The total tally of COVID cases was recorded at 4,46,78, 158 and the death toll stands at 5,30,699 with one fatality reported from Maharashtra in the last 24 hours, the data updated at 8 am stated.
The active cases comprise 0.01 per cent of the total infections, while the national recovery rate has increased to 98.80 per cent, according to the health ministry’s website.
It said an increase of 57 cases has been recorded in the active COVID caseload in a span of 24 hours. The number of people who have recuperated from the disease has increased to 4,41,43,850, while the case fatality rate stands at 1.19 per cent.
According to the ministry’s website, 220.09 crore doses of COVID vaccine have been administered so far under the nationwide vaccination drive.
India’s COVID-19 tally had crossed the 20-lakh mark on August 7, 2020, 30 lakh on August 23, 40 lakh on September 5 and 50 lakh on September 16. It went past 60 lakh on September 28, 70 lakh on October 11, crossed 80 lakh on October 29, 90 lakh on November 20 and surpassed the one-crore mark on December 19, 2020. India crossed the two-crore mark on May 4, three crore cases on June 23, 2021, and four crore cases on January 25 this year.
Even though India is not seeing a substantial surge at the moment, maintaining social distancing, wearing masks as well as respiratory and hand hygiene measures can go a long way to curtail surges.
Given that the Omicron sub-variants have a greater immune escape potential and a shorter incubation period, the Government is in alert mode, preparing healthcare infrastructure and making testing mandatory for all travellers coming from five countries to begin with. Prevention is the best strategy against a rapidly evolving and adaptive virus,
At the policy level, genomic surveillance to identify the sub-variants that are in circulation continues to remain of high importance. While it is indeed a challenging task, continuing testing and serosurveys in priority groups are the most effective methods for planning policy.
Photo Credits: Foreign Policy