Workers cycle to their places of employment on Kolkata's Howrah Bridge (representational image) | Photo: ANI
Workers cycle to their places of employment on Kolkata's Howrah Bridge | Representational image | Photo: ANI
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New Delhi: Eighty per cent of Covid-19 cases in India are concentrated in 49 districts (of over 700 districts in the country), the government said Thursday, adding that the “unequal distribution” is an indicator that community transmission has not begun yet. 

Rajesh Bhushan, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) in the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry, said at a briefing that India was instead witnessing “localised outbreaks”. “Even the World health Organization (WHO) does not clearly define community transmission and localised outbreaks,” Bhushan added at the government’s first briefing in nearly a month.

Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan also denied community transmission in India as he spoke to the media after the 18th meeting of the high-level Group of Ministers (GoM) on Covid-19. 

Community transmission is the stage of disease when the source of infection can no longer be identified.

The government’s claims run contrary to a guidance document released by the health ministry last week that suggests “limited community spread” in India may have begun as early as April.

According to the WHO definition, community transmission is said to have happened in “countries/area/territories experiencing larger outbreaks of local transmission defined through an assessment of factors including, but not limited to: 

  1. Large numbers of cases not linkable to transmission chains 
  2. Large numbers of cases from sentinel lab surveillance 
  3. Multiple unrelated clusters in several areas of the country/territory/area 

The definition of an outbreak is usually different for different diseases but denotes an uncontrolled spread of a disease.

At the meeting Thursday, the group of ministers was briefed about the Covid situation in the country. 

According to a press statement, they were informed that eight states and union territories (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat) contribute to around 90 per cent of the active caseload, while six (Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal) account for 86 per cent of deaths.

Also Read: Govt denying but India had Covid community transmission in April, health ministry paper says

ICMR letter on vaccine trial defended

The briefing Thursday was the government’s first on Covid-19 since 11 June. In the month since, India’s case load has increased by 4,80,717.

Fielding questions from the media, Bhushan aggressively defended Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director general Dr Balram Bhargava’s letter to principal investigators working on human trials of a Covid-19 vaccine, where he asked them to have the vaccine ready by 15 August

“Do not read in the letter what is not written there,” he said. Dr Nivedita Gupta, representing the apex medical research organisation, reiterated the ICMR’s earlier stance that the letter was only meant to expedite trials without compromising on safety. 

Gupta said the idea of sending the letter was that India should not miss the vaccine bus.

India has two indigenous vaccine candidates, one of Bharat Biotech and one of Cadilla. Both have completed animal studies. They have now been permitted to do Phase I & II trials. Human trials have not started yet,” Bhushan said.

Covid deaths by age

Bhushan also shared data about the age-wise distribution of Covid fatalities, juxtaposing each age group with their percentage in the population. 

According to the data, 45-59-year-olds, who comprise 15 per cent of the population, account for 32 per cent of the deaths while 60-74-year-olds form 8 per cent of the population and saw 39 per cent of deaths. 

One per cent of the fatalities were in children aged less than 14 years, 3 per cent in people aged between 15 and 29 years, 11 per cent in people aged 30-44 years, and 14 per cent in those aged over 75 years. 

ThePrint had reported last week, on the basis of a government analysis, that 43 per cent of Covid-19 deaths in India were among those who did not have any comorbidities. The government, however, did not give out any data on what percentage of the deceased had comorbidities.

On airborne transmission

Over 200 scientists have approached the WHO with findings that suggest the virus may be airborne, leading the UN health agency to admit it is a possibility. It has been believed so far that Covid-19 can only be caught if one comes into contact with the respiratory droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. 

India, Bhushan said, is following the developments on the mode of SARS-CoV-2 (virus that causes Covid-19) transmission very closely. 

We are keeping abreast of information coming out. However, you might remember that, even during the initial stages of the pandemic, we had repeatedly said do gaj ki doori is what protects one from Covid-19. That six-foot distance is enough to also take care of suspended particles in the air,” Bhushan said. 

He also rejected the findings of an MIT study predicting 2.83 lakh daily cases in India by February 2021. “Mathematical modelling cannot take into account how the virus will behave in the future, how the governments both at the Centre and in the states will behave, and also how the community will behave. Many such predictions were made earlier too,” he said.

Also Read: Plasma therapy works only when donor has recently recovered from Covid-19, says study

Plasma therapy

Asked about the questions raised around plasma therapy, which hospitals have been allowed to offer certain Covid-19 patients on an off-label basis, Bhushan said the decision to go for the therapy is that of the physician. When a doctor takes such a call, he added, there is no need for him/her to inform either the ICMR or the drug controller. 

“The decision to use plasma therapy is of the treating physician. He does not need any approval. Ministry of health guidelines categorise it as ‘investigational therapy’. State governments are taking various measures on this and the ICMR is doing a randomised trial on this,” Bhushan added.

GoM takes stock

The GoM was also briefed that India currently has a total of 3,914 health facilities with 3,77,737 isolation beds (without ICU support), 39,820 ICU beds, and 1,42,415 oxygen-supported beds along with 20,047 ventilators. 

In a detailed presentation by Amit Khare, chairman of the Empowered Group-8 (on Information, Communication and Public Awareness, one of 11 set up by the government to regulate the Covid response), the GoM was told that they had received 6,755 alerts of fake news, out of which 5,890 were replied to directly and rebuttals published to 17 foreign media stories.

Also Read: Plasma therapy — 11 trials underway, many Covid ‘cure’ stories but some doubts linger


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