You can now get your covid-19 vaccine 24x7 in Indian: Health Minister

Agencies
March 3, 2021

Covid-19 Vaccines Will Be Administered 24X7: Union Health Minister Harsh  Vardhan

New Delhi, Mar 3: The government has lifted the time restriction on receiving Covid-19 vaccine jabs so as to increase the pace of immunisation, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Wednesday.

People can now get vaccinated round-the-clock according to their convenience, he said in a tweet, adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi values the health as well as the time of the citizens of the country.

"The government has lifted the time restriction to increase the speed of vaccination. People can now get vaccinated 24x7 according to their convenience. Prime Minister Narendra Modi understands the value of health as well as the time of citizens," Vardhan tweeted in Hindi.

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan told a press conference on Tuesday that the timeline of vaccinating the beneficiaries from 9 am to 5 pm has been done away with and it is up to the hospitals to decide whether they want to continue administering the vaccines even after that.

"Co-WIN 2.0 does not provide 9 am-5 pm vaccination sessions. It has done away with that timeline. If a hospital has the capacity, the system permits it to do vaccination even after 5 pm in consultation with the state government. This has been briefed both to the state governments as well as the private and government hospitals," he said.

The second dose of the vaccine against Covid-19 started being administered from February 13 for those who have completed 28 days since the receipt of the first dose. The vaccination of frontline workers (FLWs) started on February 2.

The next phase of the Covid-19 vaccination commenced from March 1 for people over 60 years of age and those aged 45 and above with specified co-morbid conditions.

More than 1.56 crore (1,56,20,749) vaccine doses were administered in the country through 3,12,188 sessions, according to a provisional report till Wednesday 7 am.

The beneficiaries include 67,42,187 healthcare workers (first dose), 27,13,144 healthcare workers (second dose), 55,70,230 front-line workers (first dose), 834 front-line workers (second dose), 71,896 beneficiaries aged more than 45 years with specific co-morbidities (first dose) and 5,22,458 beneficiaries aged above 60 years.

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Agencies
April 21,2021

New Delhi, Apr 21: Authorities scrambled to shore up supplies of medical oxygen to hospitals in Delhi on Wednesday as a fast-spreading second wave of coronavirus stretched medical infrastructure to breaking point, officials and doctors said.

India, the world's second-most populous country, is reporting the world's highest number of new daily cases and approaching a peak of about 2.97 lakh cases in one day that the United States hit in January.

The latest data released by the health ministry showed there had been 2,95,041 new infections nationwide overnight and 2,023 deaths, India's highest in the pandemic.

Delhi's government hospitals reported they only had enough oxygen to last another eight to 24 hours while some private ones had enough for just four or five hours.

"We are facing huge problems in oxygen supply but somehow we are managing. Yesterday, it was very critical. We had only four to five hours oxygen in the evening," said Ronit Kumar, head Biomedical Engineering at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute.

Replenishment came before dawn on Wednesday, with enough to last through the day, he said, adding they were pushing their suppliers. "Since they are also facing huge requirements, so I don't know. I have not got confirmation," he said.

Delhi, like large parts of India, lets its guard down when the virus seemed to be under control, allowing big gatherings such as weddings and festivals as daily infections fell to fewer than 1,000 during the winter, health experts said.

On Tuesday, the city of 20 million recorded 28,395 new cases and 277 deaths, its highest since the pandemic began. Every third person tested for coronavirus was found positive, the state government said, piling the pressure on health infrastructure.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India faced a coronavirus "storm" overwhelming its health system and the government was working with state governments and private companies to deliver oxygen with "speed and sensitivity".

"The central and state governments, as well as the private sector, are together trying to ensure oxygen supplies to those in need. We are trying to increase oxygen production and supply across the country," Modi said in his address to the nation on Tuesday evening.

'Feel your pain'

A source at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, a top private hospital, said staff had a “crazy night” as they ran short of oxygen but two tankers finally arrived after midnight. The hospital has 12 to 14 hours of oxygen left for 200 patients relying on it, the source added.

“We were hand to mouth but hoping the supply levels will increase from today,” said the hospital source, who is not authorised to speak to media.

Modi has faced accusations that his government did not prepare for the second wave and instead allowed gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela and political rallies that he himself addressed to go ahead.

Thousands of people, very few wearing masks, packed into those meetings.

"I feel your pain, those who have lost loved ones," he said in the Tuesday evening address.

People pleaded on social media for help arranging beds, oxygen supplies, and the anti-viral drug Remdevisir in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

There were no beds for Covid-19 patients in about 80 of 142 hospitals in Delhi, according to government data.

Saurabh Mittal, a New Delhi-based businessman, who was trying to help someone get treatment said he called a hospital that a government database showed had beds free but the operator said they were full and could not take anyone.

"I told them there is online availability but they said the real-time data showed no beds,” Mittal said. 

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Agencies
May 1,2021

mod.jpg

New Delhi, May 1: 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 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 BJP and opposition politicians.

Tens of thousands of farmers, meanwhile, continued to camp on the edge of New Delhi protesting the Centre’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 PM Modi himself.

Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

INSACOG was set up as a forum of scientific advisers by the government in late December specifically to detect genomic variants of the coronavirus that might threaten public health. INSACOG brings together 10 national laboratories capable of studying virus variants.

INSACOG researchers first detected B.1.617, which is now known as the Indian variant of the virus, as early as February, Ajay Parida, director of the state-run Institute of Life Sciences and a member of INSACOG, told 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.

The draft statement said that the mutations, called E484Q and L452R, were of “high concern.” It said, “there is data of E484Q mutant viruses escaping highly neutralising antibodies in cultures, and there is data that L452R mutation was responsible for both increased transmissibility and immune escape."

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 the 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.

"Policy has to be based on evidence and not the other way around," he told Reuters. “I am worried that science was not taken into account to drive policy. But I know where my jurisdiction stops. As scientists we provide the evidence, policymaking is the job of the government.”

The northern India research centre director told Reuters the draft media release was sent to the most senior bureaucrat in the country, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who reports directly to the prime minister. Reuters was unable to learn whether Modi or his office were informed of the findings. Gauba did not respond to a request for comment.

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.

Modi, some of his top lieutenants, and dozens of other politicians, including opposition figures, held rallies across the country for local elections throughout March and into April.

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.

STRICT MEASURES NOT TAKEN

INSACOG reports to the National Centre for Disease Control in New Delhi. NCDC director Sujeet Kumar Singh recently told a private online gathering that strict lockdown measures had been needed in early April, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by Reuters.

"The exact time, as per our thinking, was 15 days before," Singh said in the April 19 meeting, referring to the need for stricter lockdown measures.

Singh did not say during the meeting whether he warned the government directly of the need for action at that time. Singh declined to comment to Reuters.

Singh told the April 19 gathering that more recently, he had relayed the urgency of the matter to government officials.

"It was highlighted very, very clearly that unless drastic measures are taken now, it will be too late to prevent the mortality which we are going to see," said Singh, referring to a meeting which took place on April 18. He did not identify which government officials were in the meeting or describe their seniority.

Singh said some government officials in the meeting worried that mid-sized towns could see law and order problems as essential medical supplies like oxygen ran out, a scenario that has already begun to play out in parts of India.

The need for urgent action was also expressed the week before by the National Task Force for Covid-19, a group of 21 experts and government officials set up last April to provide scientific and technical guidance to the health ministry on the pandemic. It is chaired by V.K. Paul, Modi’s top coronavirus adviser.

The group had a discussion on April 15 and “unanimously agreed that the situation is serious and that we should not hesitate in imposing lockdowns,” said one scientist who took part.

Paul was present at the discussion, according to the scientist. Reuters could not determine if Paul relayed the group’s conclusion to Modi. Paul did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

Two days after Singh’s April 18 warning to government officials, PM Modi addressed the nation on April 20, arguing against lockdowns. He said a lockdown should be the last resort in fighting the virus. India’s two-month-long national lockdown a year ago put millions out of work and devastated the economy.

“We have to save the country from lockdowns. I would also request the states to use lockdowns as the last option,” Modi said. “We have to try our best to avoid lockdowns and focus on micro-containment zones,” he said, referring to small, localised lockdowns imposed by authorities to control outbreaks.

State governments have wide latitude in setting health policy for their regions, and some have acted independently to try to control the spread of the virus.

Maharashtra, the country’s second-most populous state, which includes Mumbai, imposed tough restrictions such as office and store closures early in April as hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen and medicines. It imposed a full lockdown on April 14.

‘TICKING TIME BOMB’

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.

The UK variant, called B.1.1.7, was also detected in India by January, including in the northern state of Punjab, a major epicentre for the farmers’ protests, Anurag Agrawal, a senior INSACOG scientist, told Reuters.

The NCDC and some INSACOG laboratories determined that a massive spike in cases in Punjab was caused by the UK variant, according to a statement issued by Punjab’s state government on March 23.

Punjab imposed a lockdown from March 23. But thousands of farmers from the state remained at protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi, many moving back and forth between the two places before the restrictions began.

"It was a ticking time bomb," said Agrawal, who is director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, which has studied some samples from Punjab. "It was a matter of an explosion, and public gatherings is a huge problem in a time of pandemic. And B.1.1.7 is a really bad variant in terms of spreading potential."

By April 7, more than two weeks after Punjab's announcement on the UK variant, cases of coronavirus began rising sharply in Delhi. Within days, hospital beds, critical care facilities, and medical oxygen began running out in the city. At some hospitals, patients died gasping for air before they could be treated. The city's crematoriums overflowed with dead bodies.

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.

India overall has reported more than 300,000 infections a day for the past nine days, the worst streak anywhere in the world since the pandemic began. Deaths have surged, too, with the total exceeding 200,000 this week.

Agrawal and two other senior government scientists told Reuters that federal health authorities and local Delhi officials should have been better prepared after seeing what the variants had done in Maharashtra and Punjab. Reuters could not determine what specific warnings were issued to whom about preparing for a huge surge.

“We are in a very grave situation,” said Shanta Dutta, a medical research scientist at the state-run National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. “People listen to politicians more than scientists.”

Rakesh Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, which is part of INSACOG, said the country’s scientific community was dejected.

"We could have done better, our science could have been given more significance,” he told Reuters. "What we observed in whatever little way, that should have been used better." 

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News Network
April 30,2021

New Delhi, Apr 30: The suspension of scheduled international commercial passenger flights to or from India has been extended till May 31. The international scheduled flights under select routes, however, will remain operational on a "case-to-case" basis, the director-general of civil aviation (DGCA) said on Friday.

"In partial modification of circular date 26-6-2020, the competent authority has further extended the validity of circular issued on the subject cited above regarding scheduled international commercial passenger services to or from India till 2359 hrs IST of 31st May 2021. The restriction shall not apply to international all-cargo operations and flights specifically approved by the DGCA," the DGCA circular stated.

Many countries including the US, UK, Kuwait, France and Canada have banned flights from India, citing COVID-19 cases and the "double mutant" virus being found in the country. Iran, Kuwait, Indonesia and UAE are the latest additions to this list of countries that have banned India from their citizens' travel lists.

Australia this week suspended all direct passenger flights from India for the next three weeks due to the unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

The suspension of international commercial flights comes as India continues to face the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. India recorded 3,86,452 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and 3,498 deaths, the health ministry data showed. A record 2,97,540 passengers were also discharged from hospitals in the last 24 hours, the health ministry data shows.

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