A forum of scientific advisers set up by the government warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country, five scientists who are part of the forum told Reuters.
Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the federal government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus.
Millions of largely unmasked people attended religious festivals and political rallies that were held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition politicians.
Tens of thousands of farmers, meanwhile, continued to camp on the edge of New Delhi protesting Modi’s agricultural policy changes.
The world’s second-most populous country is now struggling to contain a second wave of infections much more severe than its first last year, which some scientists say is being accelerated by the new variant and another variant first detected in Britain.
India reported 386,452 new cases on Friday, a global record.
The warning about the new variant in early March was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium, or INSACOG. It was conveyed to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister, according to one of the scientists, the director of a research centre in northern India who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reuters could not determine whether the INSACOG findings were passed on to Modi himself.
Modi’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
INSACOG shared its findings with the health ministry’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) before March 10, warning that infections could quickly increase in parts of the country, the director of the northern India research centre told Reuters. The findings were then passed on to the Indian health ministry, this person said. The health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Around that date, INSACOG began to prepare a draft media statement for the health ministry. A version of that draft, seen by Reuters, set out the forum’s findings: the new Indian variant had two significant mutations to the portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, and it had been traced in 15% to 20% of samples from Maharashtra, India’s worst-affected state.
In other words, essentially, this meant that mutated versions of the virus could more easily enter a human cell and counter a person’s immune response to it.
The ministry made the findings public about two weeks later, on March 24, when it issued a statement to the media that did not include the words “high concern.” The statement said only that more problematic variants required following measures already underway – increased testing and quarantine. Testing has since nearly doubled to 1.9 million tests a day.
Asked why the government did not respond more forcefully to the findings, for example by restricting large gatherings, Shahid Jameel, chair of the scientific advisory group of INSACOG, said he was concerned that authorities were not paying enough attention to the evidence as they set policy.
The government took no steps to prevent gatherings that might hasten the spread of the new variant, as new infections quadrupled by April 1 from a month earlier.
The government also allowed the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival, attended by millions of Hindus, to proceed from mid-March. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers were allowed to remain camped on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi to protest against new agriculture laws.
To be sure, some scientists say the surge was much larger than expected and the setback cannot be pinned on political leadership alone. “There is no point blaming the government,” Saumitra Das, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, which is part of INSACOG, told Reuters.
The Indian variant has now reached at least 17 countries including Britain, Switzerland and Iran, leading several governments to close their borders to people travelling from India.
The World Health Organization has not declared the India mutant a “variant of concern,” as it has done for variants first detected in Britain, Brazil, and South Africa. But the WHO said on April 27 that its early modelling, based on genome sequencing, suggested that B.1.617 had a higher growth rate than other variants circulating in India.
Delhi is now suffering one of the worst infection rates in the country, with more than three out of every 10 tests positive for the virus.