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New variant in India complicates COVID-19 fight

By Aparajit Chakraborty in NEW DELHI and Vivien Xu in Hong Kong | | Updated: 2021-03-25 16:35
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A man wearing a protective mask sprays disinfectant as a preventive measure against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Sagar Island in the eastern state of West Bengal, India on Jan 13, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

A new virus variant makes it more complex for India to fight COVID-19 as the country witnesses an alarming surge in new cases again despite growing numbers of vaccinations.

On Tuesday India recorded 47,262 new coronavirus cases in a day, the biggest single-day spike since November 2020, taking the nationwide COVID-19 tally to over 11.7 million, the Union ministry of health and family welfare said.

India's health ministry said that a novel variant of the coronavirus had been detected in the country in addition to many other variants of concern also found abroad.

"Though variants of concern and a new double mutant variant have been found in India, these have not been detected in numbers sufficient to either establish a direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases in some states," the health ministry stated earlier in a statement.

However, no direct link has been established between the ongoing surge in Maharashtra and the detection of the double mutant variant, the center said. The rise in cases is the result of a large susceptible population being exposed to the virus for the first time, the government said.

These variants detected in the community "have been prevalent since the last six to eight months", the ministry said. "The occurrence of mutations is a natural process. The RNA strand of the virus will replicate and will make mistakes resulting in mutations. We should not worry about mutations," Dr V K Paul, chairperson of India's COVID-19 task force, said.

"However," Dr Paul said, "the most important thing to remember is that viruses will not mutate if they are not allowed to replicate. Therefore, we have to only suppress the chain of transmission to stop mutations of the virus. Testing, quarantine and containment will limit the spread of the virus."

For the fifth consecutive day in India, more than forty thousand cases were reported, the third highest in the world after the United States and Brazil in terms of daily cases, according to data revealed by the World Health Organization.

India's caseload began to come down at the start of 2021 with daily infections falling to less than 20,000 from a peak of over 90,000 in September of last year.

Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan held the lax behavior shown by people in following safety protocols as the reason behind the recent surge and urged them not to let their guard down against the infection, or else the situation may turn "dangerous".

"With vaccines available now, people feel they should not wear masks," Dr Vardhan added.

Five states - Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh - continue to report the highest number of daily coronavirus cases, according to the ministry.

Former head of the department of the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine and infectious disease specialist Dr Amitabha Nandy says the rise is not surprising.

"A false notion of optimism" swept the country when the caseload was decreasing at the start of this year, he added.

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