Analysis – The world has been shaken by the harrowing scenes from India, where the country is dealing with an epidemic of Covid.
However, the epidemic is not only a problem for India; it is a problem for all.
“The virus doesn’t respect borders, or nationalities, or age, or sex or religion,” Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist said.
“And what’s playing out in India now unfortunately has been played out in other countries.”
The pandemic has revealed just how interconnected the world is. And if a country has very high levels of infection, then it’s likely to spread to other countries.
Even with travel restrictions, multiple tests and quarantine, infections can still leak out; and if a traveller has come from somewhere where the virus is very prevalent, they have a higher chance of taking the virus with them. On a recent flight from New Delhi to Hong Kong about 50 passengers tested positive for Covid-19.
But there’s another concern with India’s high infection rates: variants.
A new variant has emerged in India called B.1.617. It’s been dubbed by some as the “double mutant” because of two key mutations on the spike of the virus. There’s some lab evidence that suggests it’s slightly more transmissible and that antibodies may find it harder to block the virus, but scientists are still assessing how much immunity is lost.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence that it’s an escape mutation [which would mean] it fundamentally can’t be stopped by the vaccines,” Dr Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told BBC News.
“I think we have to obviously watch carefully, but there’s at present no reason to panic about it.”
But the higher the number of Covid cases a country has, the more likely it is that new variants will emerge. That’s because every single infection gives the virus a chance to evolve and a major concern is that mutations could arise that render vaccines ineffective.
“The way to limit viral variants emerging in the first place is to prevent the virus replicating in us… so the best way to control variants is actually to control the global amount of disease that we have at the moment,” Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium (Cog-UK) director Prof Sharon Peacock explains.
Lockdowns and social distancing will do this, but vaccination is still important.
In India, this is occuring slowly: less than 10% of the population has received the first dose of the vaccine, and less than 2% is completely vaccinated.
Despite the fact that it is home to the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine producer. This is yet another reason why India’s increase in cases has a ripple effect on the rest of the country.
As infections in India began to rise in March, authorities in that country suspended large-scale shipments of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
That included vaccines for the UN-backed Covax scheme to provide doses to low and middle-income countries. On Monday, the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), which is a partner in the scheme, said it was waiting to hear when supplies from India would resume.
This will certainly impact on vaccination roll-outs in many countries. But it means more of India’s vaccines are diverted for domestic use, while it tries to ramp up production.
And with India’s dire situation, scientists say this is a priority.
“We really need to double down on vaccination as quickly as possible or the virus is going to try and do everything it can to keep on spreading from person to person,” Swaminathan said.
Globally, the pandemic shows no sign of easing, with the virus devastating country after country.
The situation in India is a bleak reminder that none of us will be safe until everyone is safe.