India's Covid crisis could happen anywhere: WHO

Kolkata, India: The World Health Organization issued a stark alert to European nations on Thursday, saying that easing Covid steps could create a "perfect storm" that allows cases to spiral, as seen in India.

India's coronavirus disaster deepened on Thursday with the daily death toll climbing above 3,600 as dozens of countries sent urgent medical aid to help tackle the spiraling crisis.

The United States and several European nations are starting to ease restrictions as vaccination campaigns pick up, but the pandemic is still worsening in many parts of the world.

The head of WHO Europe said countries should not make the mistake of relaxing restrictions too soon to avoid similar new waves of infection.

"When personal protective measures are being relaxed, when there are mass gatherings, when there are more contagious variants and the vaccination coverage is still low this can create a perfect storm in any country," Hans Kluge told reporters Thursday.

"It is very important to realize that the situation in India can happen anywhere."

Death and infection rates have been rising exponentially throughout April in India, which experts blame in part on mass gatherings.

On Thursday, the south Asian nation reported 3,645 deaths over the past 24 hours, while confirmed new cases hit a new global record with more than 379,000. The official numbers are widely believed to be far below reality.

The pandemic has claimed at least 3.1 million lives around the world, with India accounting for more than 200,000 fatalities.

In many Indian cities, hospitals are running out of beds as relatives of the sick crowd jostle for medicines and oxygen cylinders.

"We rushed to multiple hospitals, but were denied admission everywhere," said the son of an 84-year-old woman who died at home this week after a desperate search for a hospital bed and oxygen in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal state.

The Indian government will open vaccinations to all adults from Saturday. It had previously limited shots to the over-45s and certain other groups.

Several states have warned, however, they do not have sufficient vaccine stocks and the expanded rollout is threatened by administrative bickering, confusion over prices, and technical glitches on the government's digital vaccine platform.

'Unprecedented situation'

More than 40 countries have committed to sending India vital medical aid, particularly oxygen amid a severe shortage, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said.

The supplies include almost 550 oxygen-generating plants, more than 4,000 oxygen concentrators, 10,000 oxygen cylinders as well as 17 cryogenic tankers.

Hundreds of thousands of doses of Covid-19 treatment drugs as well as raw materials to produce vaccines were also being sent.

"It is an unprecedented situation... many countries have come forward on their own to offer us assistance," Shringla said.

The United States is dispatching more than $100 million in supplies, with a flight due to arrive on Friday carrying including oxygen concentrators, cylinders, and other oxygen-generating equipment.

The WHO has said the virus variant feared to be contributing to the catastrophe on the sub-continent has now been found in more than a dozen countries.

But the body has stopped short of saying it is more transmissible, more deadly, or able to dodge vaccines.

Africa's disease control body also put out a warning that the continent could be overrun by infections if urgent measures are not taken to avert a similar disaster to India's.

"We cannot be indifferent to what is happening in India. We must act now, decisively and collectively," said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC.

The Indian, double-mutant strain

The so-called Indian version, or B.1.617, is sweeping the world, but the WHO has yet to confirm whether it is more transmissible or lethal than other strains of the virus.

Huge crowds, such as those at sporting events or celebrations, have been blamed in part for the increase in incidents, according to experts.

Kluge said European nations must keep in mind that "individual and collective public health and social measures remain dominant factors in shaping the pandemic's course".

He noted that while the number of new cases in the region fell "significantly" last week for the first time in two months, "infection rates across the region remain extremely high".

Vaccinations, he said, were on the rise in the European region, with 7 percent of the population now completely immunized.

According to the WHO, this suggests that more people in Europe have already received the vaccine than have been infected with the disease.

Lollipop tests 

In the United States, President Joe Biden on Wednesday hailed his nation's inoculation program as one of "the greatest logistical achievements" in American history.

More than 234 million doses had been administered by Wednesday in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Countries are looking to do the same in Europe, and Germany hit a new record in daily vaccinations with 1.1 million people, Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

That meant Europe's biggest economy for the first time vaccinated more than one percent of its population in 24 hours.

The EU also inched further toward a Covid certificate for travel on Thursday, after the EU parliament approved the position it would take in talks with the executive branch and the bloc's members.

And in France, where the rollout has stuttered, President Emmanuel Macron set out a timetable for a gradual lifting of Covid curbs from May 19 to the end of June.

Amid concern that virus variants may spread quickly among youngsters, a lollipop-shaped test is being rolled out in some Austrian kindergartens.

Burgenland province said it had already ordered 35,000 lollipop tests after a successful pilot scheme.

"Put the test in the mouth, suck for 90 seconds, dip the test in the container, wait 15 minutes, check the result," the instructions read.


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