India has stepped up surveillance and is preparing its health system for a possible surge in cases of COVID-19 following a spike in infections in China.
Experts, however, are optimistic that with a large part of its population vaccinated or exposed to the virus, India, which has reported the world’s second-highest number of infections, may escape another deadly wave of the pandemic.
The government has made it mandatory for travelers arriving from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand to produce a negative test report and ordered random testing of 2% of passengers on international flights to India.
The health ministry has asked states to ensure that hospitals are prepared to handle a possible influx of cases and are equipped with adequate supplies of oxygen and ventilators. Officials say the country will also increase the genome sequencing that makes it possible to detect new strains of the virus.
India has not reimposed mask mandates that were relaxed earlier this year but last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged people to return to COVID-appropriate behavior and don masks. Authorities are also calling on those who have not taken vaccines to get the shots.
India has been hit with three waves of the pandemic — the deadliest one occurred in the summer of 2021 when the country grappled with a massive shortage of hospital beds and oxygen and reported tens of thousands of deaths.
But the pandemic has waned in the world’s second most populous country and in recent months, India has been reporting the lowest number of infections since it began. The country presently has about 3,500 cases.
Concerns however have resurfaced following the surge in cases of COVID-19 in China since it relaxed its zero-COVID policy this month. Domestic media reports on Thursday quoted health ministry officials as saying that India may experience a spike in cases over the next month. They pointed to the trend of India being hit about 30-35 days after an outbreak in East Asia.
Still, public health experts are hopeful that India is no longer as vulnerable to the virus as it was at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
“India has a fair amount of immunity both from exposure of a large section of the population to the virus and high immunization rates,” according to K. Srinath Reddy, head of the Public Health Foundation of India. “More than 90% of the adults are vaccinated with two doses and more than 50% of adults have taken a booster dose. So even if cases rise, the likelihood of a severe wave resulting in hospitalization and deaths is very unlikely.”
Other experts concur with that view.
“The government is being cautious and that is good. But I don’t expect any major spread of the present virus driving infections in China or any other variant because a lot of people were infected during the three waves of the pandemic,” according to virologist, T. Jacob John. “India will not have a major problem because of the immunity it has gained over the last three years.”
However, as the country celebrates the holiday season, and people pack markets, restaurants, flights and tourist destinations, experts are reiterating the call to wear masks in public places and crowded areas.
“We need to be alert for a more deadly non-omicron variant emerging. While we may consider it a low probability, we will need to watch out. People should protect themselves against infection,” according to Reddy.
India has reported about 44 million infections so far and about half a million deaths. Several experts however have said that those numbers may not be an accurate count of the devastation wrought by the pandemic in the country of 1.4 billion.