Just weeks after its Health Minister declared that it was “in the endgame” of the COVID pandemic, India is emerging as one of the worst global hotspots in the fight against the coronavirus.
It may even have a new extra-infectious variant.
Overnight, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called off a planned trip to Delhi in response to a surge in cases there, and Hong Kong suspended flights from India, as well as Pakistan and the Philippines, for two weeks.
All three countries have been classified as “extremely high risk” by the Hong Kong government.
The Indian health ministry reported more than 270,000 new infections on Monday, its highest daily rise since the start of the pandemic.
It has now reported more than 15 million infections, second only to the US. The Indian health ministry also reported 1619 deaths from COVID-19 over 24 hours, pushing the toll to 178,769.
Delhi goes into lockdown
India’s capital region of Delhi has entered a six-day lockdown, as India’s hospitals struggle with a shortage of beds, oxygen and key medicines.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said oxygen shortages had “become an emergency” in the city.
After imposing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns for nearly three months last year, India’s government relaxed almost all curbs by the beginning of 2021.
Now Prime Minister Prime Minister Narendra Modi is appealing to devotees to keep a key Hindu festival “symbolic”, despite holding election rallies over recent weeks that attracted thousands of people, few of whom followed COVID-19 safety protocols.
Hundreds of thousands of Hindus have gathered for days along the banks of the Ganges in a northern state for the Kumbh Mela religious festival. But Mr Modi said on Twitter the festival should now remain only “symbolic”.
Johnston calls off his first foreign trip
Mr Johnson has again postponed a planned visit to India. The long-planned trip would have been his first foreign visit since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
It was originally scheduled for January but was postponed – at that time due to soaring infection rates in Britain.
Now the concern is over the situation in India, as well as over the potential for the variant identified there to spread globally.
Mr Johnson said it was “only sensible” to postpone the trip, given “the shape of the pandemic there”. He hoped Mr Modi would be able to come to Britain for the G7 summit in June, to which India has been invited as a guest.
British health officials eye Indian variant
British health officials are considering whether to add India to a “red list” of countries with high coronavirus rates.
Travellers from those countries are barred in Britain and returning Britons face mandatory hotel quarantines.
Britain has recorded at least 77 cases of a new virus variant first identified in India.
Scientists are investigating whether it spreads more rapidly or is more resistant to existing vaccines than the original strain.
The strain, known as B.1.617, is designated a “variant under investigation” by British health authorities rather than a “variant of concern”, such as those first identified in south-east England, Brazil and South Africa.
Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said “my assumption from everything I’ve seen is that it will become a variant of concern”.
“When it becomes a variant of concern, I’d be quite surprised if India wasn’t on the red list,” Professor Altmann said.