The story so far: Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week convened a high-level meeting of the COVID-19 task force. This is the first time this year that such a meeting has been convened, with the last such meet held on December 22, 2022.
Why was the meeting necessary?
By all metrics, there has been a rise in COVID-19 cases over several weeks. As of March 23, India officially reported 1,300 new coronavirus cases over a 24-hour period bringing the overall tally of active cases to 7,605. In the previous weeks too, an average of 800 cases have been reported weekly. The death toll climbed to 5,30,813 with five deaths, one each reported in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Kerala, as of March 22. The number of daily deaths has been in the single digit in the past few weeks. Globally, about 1 lakh cases are being reported every day.
The daily positivity rate, or the percentage of tests administered by States every day that confirms the presence of the virus, was recorded at 1.46% while the weekly positivity rate was pegged at 1.08%.
These are still numbers well within the comfort margins of health authorities. During the pandemic, a test positivity rate below 5% was considered to be a sign of the disease being within manageable limits. However, the fact that there has been a rise in the number prompted top health officials, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to take stock of the situation.
What was the outcome of the meeting?
Mr. Modi’s headline remark was that the COVID-19 pandemic “is far from over”, and he stressed the need to monitor the status of the disease across the country on a regular basis. He directed officials to increase whole genome sequencing of COVID positive samples, using the designated INSACOG (Indian SARS CoV-2 Genomics Consortium) laboratories, to aid with the tracking of new and emerging variants and facilitate a timely response. The consortium is a network of labs across the country that analyses samples from different regions and sounds an alert if a spike in cases is linked to certain mutations of the coronavirus that are known to increase virus transmissibility.
He said that “COVID-appropriate behaviour” should be enforced in hospitals, and also among senior citizens and those with co-morbidities when visiting crowded areas. He directed officials to follow up with States to ensure effective monitoring of all cases of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) and severe acute respiratory Illnesses (SARI), with testing for influenza, SARS-CoV-2 and adenovirus.
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He emphasised the need to ensure the availability of the required drugs and logistics for influenza and COVID-19 cases across health facilities, along with the availability of sufficient beds and health human resources. The States were advised to continue focusing on the five-fold strategy of test-track-treat-vaccinate and COVID-appropriate behaviour, and enhance lab surveillance and testing of all SARI cases. “Mock drills should be conducted regularly to ensure that our hospitals are ready,’’ Mr. Modi said.
What is behind the surge in cases?
There is an increase in the number of seasonal influenza H3N2 cases and tests on patients often reveal an uptick in COVID-19 cases. A rapidly proliferating lineage of the Omicron virus called XBB.1.16 is believed to be behind the recent spike in COVID-19 cases. Scientists from the INSACOG consortium report that though systematic genomic surveillance in India is limited, XBB.1.16 has been found in nearly a third of all the sequenced genomes in March 2023. Its proportion has been seen to be increasing in the past few weeks, to become the major lineage in several States such as Telangana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Delhi, Puducherry, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Odisha. These States report higher cases also because they have better surveillance systems.
Based on preliminary data, there is no evidence, so far, to suggest that infections with the XBB.1.16 lineage differ in clinical severity from those caused by other Omicron lineages, although the higher growth advantage and its ability to better thwart the immune system could lead to a higher risk of reinfection with XBB.1.16 compared to other Omicron lineages.
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Is India testing enough?
Nearly 92 crore tests for the detection of COVID-19 have been conducted so far. The number of people who have recovered from the disease surged to 4.4 crore, while the case fatality rate was 1.19%. According to the Health Ministry, about 220 crore doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the country thus far under the nationwide vaccination drive.