India hits new Covid record amid threat of vaccine shortage

Kolkata, India: The daily Covid death toll in India reached a new high on Saturday, with hospitals facing oxygen shortages and crematoriums overcrowded, as US regulators said pharma giant Johnson & Johnson would resume a vaccine rollout halted due to concerns about blood clots.

Queues of COVID-19 patients and their terrified families have gathered outside hospitals in major cities across India, the latest global pandemic hotspot that has registered nearly one million new cases in three days.

Another 2,624 deaths were confirmed in 24 hours, setting a new daily high, bringing the official death toll to nearly 190,000 since the pandemic began.

More than 340,000 new cases were registered as well, bringing India's total to 16.5 million, second only to the United States.

However, several analysts believe that the current wave will not peak for at least three weeks and that the true mortality and case figures are far higher.

After being chastised for its lack of readiness in advance of the wave of infections, the central government has organized special trains to transport oxygen supplies to the worst-affected cities.

It has also pushed manufacturers to increase the production of oxygen and other life-saving drugs that are in short supply.

Also read | Avalanche in Uttarakhand's Chamoli kills 8

At dawn on Saturday, an 'oxygen express' carrying 30,000 liters for hospitals arrived in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh province, where armed guards were waiting to escort trucks to hospitals.

Lucknow has been one of the hardest-hit cities, with hospitals and crematoriums overrun with patients and corpses, and officials estimating that the liquid oxygen will only last half a day.

The Indian air force is also used to transport oxygen tanks and other supplies across the region.

In New Delhi, the city government announced that it will begin stockpiling buffer stocks of oxygen to expedite supplies to hospitals that are on the verge of running out.

Because of a shortage of beds and oxygen, many patients are dying outside hospitals in the capital.

To cope with the rising number of deaths, one charity has set up an overflow crematorium in a parking lot, complete with temporary funeral pyres.

Havoc

A surge blamed on a new virus variant and recent "super spreader" public events have wreaked havoc on the nation of 1.3 billion people, forcing charities to set up temporary funeral pyres to relieve pressure on crematoriums.

Volunteer requests for vacant ICU beds and medication are flooding Indian social media and WhatsApp, and the central government is scrambling to organize special trains to transport oxygen supplies to the worst-affected cities.

The grim scenes from India contrasted sharply with the rapid pace of vaccine rollouts in most of the Western world, with US regulators authorizing the restart of a J&J vaccine rollout that had been halted due to blood clotting concerns.

Also read | China offers help to Covid-ridden India

Following reports of serious blood clots in a small number of the millions of Americans who obtained the vaccine, health officials recommended a halt, but that decision was reversed after an advisory panel determined that the benefits outweighed the risks.

According to the data presented on Friday, 15 of the 3.9 million women in the United States who received the Johnson & Johnson shot developed dangerous blood clots, and three died.

The majority of the patients were under the age of 50. There were no cases recorded among men.

European hopes are strong 

Concerns about blood clots have also threatened to stymie vaccine roll-out efforts in Europe, where medical regulators said Friday that the benefits of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine increase with age and still outweigh the risks for adults, despite ties to extremely rare side effects.

The announcement came as the European Union announced that it would have enough vaccines for the majority of its adult population by the summer, a significant change in tone for a bloc plagued by vaccine issues, first relating to a failure to procure much-needed supplies and then to safety concerns.

"I'm confident we will have enough doses to vaccinate 70 percent of all EU adults already in July," European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.

The EU chief had previously set a late September deadline but revealed the new date during a visit to a Belgian vaccine plant ramping up the development of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Despite the optimism, the threat of the virus remains constant, with Germany preparing for a tough new lockdown on Saturday, including night curfews and school closures, after the government passed a contentious new law aimed at slowing infections.

The contentious new laws, which were passed this week amid massive protests in Berlin, would apply to all regions with more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people in the previous seven days.

The growing number of cases has also compelled Japan to declare a state of emergency in some regions, just three months before the Olympics begin.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the country's minister for virus response, has warned of a "serious sense of crisis," claiming that existing restrictions are insufficient.

In a new blow to trans-Tasman travel, New Zealand halted arrivals from Western Australia on Friday, temporarily barring the state's visitors from a quarantine-free zone due to a new Covid-19 outbreak.

It is the first big stumbling block since the two countries reopened their bubble on April 18, about 400 days after each had closed their international borders due to the pandemic.

The US blocks raw material export vital for India innovation drive

Washington has used the Defense Production Act to protect vaccine raw materials for its own businesses, but the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, has said this goes against the global aim of equitably sharing vaccines.


When asked about the export limitations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said inequities in vaccine access were "absolutely unacceptable," but she refused to elaborate on additional U.S. action to fix them.

Meanwhile, India is optimistic that the United States will soon lift a ban on the export of vaccine raw materials, which threatens to stymie India's immunization push, two Indian government sources told Reuters on Monday, following a meeting between the two countries foreign ministers.

According to one official, the Biden administration informed India that its request for the lifting of the ban was being considered and would be addressed "as soon as possible."

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian Foreign Minister, tweeted that he and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had discussed "issues pertaining to our health cooperation," among other items.

COVER IMAGE COURTESY OF SKY NEWS.

With AFP inputs.

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