The Indian government assumed the pandemic ended and allowed mass gatherings without precautionary measures after cases started declining earlier this year, according to leading virologist Dr. T. Jacob John.
The country has seen an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, with daily cases surpassing 400,000. As India is caught in a severe COVID-19 crisis, severely straining the health system, John blames the government for announcing an early victory against the pandemic.
“From the end of December 2020, the government allowed mass gatherings and soft-pedalled the stipulation of 100% mask-wearing. The message was clear that the epidemic has ended. I think the government assumed so,” John told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive email interview.
“From early January 2021 Kumbh Mela [the largest Hindu festival] was also allowed without any precautionary measures and election commission also declared elections in some States -- due for April first half … only after the variants took advantage of easy access for rapid spread, that reality dawned on everyone. I suspect the government went into a policy hesitancy mode. ”
Noting that the second wave was not “predicted,” John maintains that everyone believed India reached “herd immunity threshold” of 50-60% and a second wave would not take place. “The herd immunity threshold applied to the D614G virus variant that caused the first wave, not for faster spreading new variants,” he said.
After India reported nearly 98,000 daily cases in September, cases had started to show a decline slowly, until the end of January when daily numbers reached an eight-month low. Daily cases, however, started to increase again only in March 2021.
The presence of all variants everywhere is now leading the large number of cases across the country, according to John.
“Maharashtra state has B.1.617 spreading fast and West Bengal has B.1.18 spreading fast. Most other northern states have B.1.1.7 (UK variant) but now all variants are everywhere that is why we have 300,000-400,000 daily infections,” he said.
Earlier this week, the Health Ministry said few states have seen an increase in cases of the “double mutant” Indian variant (B.1.617) of the coronavirus, while the UK strain has witnessed a decline in recent weeks.
John adds that the “emergence of variants is a normal, expected phenomenon from the early days of a pandemic.”
Blaming the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), for letting “India down,” John believes that proper and regular genome analysis was not done and if the consortium "functioned satisfactorily" from December 2020, things might not have been bad.
INSACOG is a group of 10 national laboratories tasked to carry out genomic sequencing on the latest samples.
“In December 2020 the government of India had assigned the task of ‘monitoring’ emergence of variants, to INSACOG and their work was to keep monitoring 5% of all viruses in India for mutant variants,” said John. “INSACOG failed India and only after the second wave was upon us that INSACOG explored and found many variants that drove the second wave.”
It needs to be "watched and studied" how effective Covaxin and Covishield are against mutant variants, he said.
While the Covishield vaccine is locally manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India and is developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, Covaxin is the country's indigenous vaccine.
“Covaxin seems to protect against all variants but Covishield does not protect against South Africa variant,” he said, adding that new variants are “so highly infectious, that they are infecting children and adolescents and young adults.”