India gingerly eases curbs
Many Indian states eased coronavirus restrictions yesterday including the capital Delhi, where authorities allowed all shops and malls to open, as the number of new infections dropped to the lowest in more than two months.
Experts have cautioned against a full re-opening as India has vaccinated only about 5% of its estimated 950 million adults with the necessary two doses, leaving millions vulnerable.
Infections peaked in India in May with about 400,000 new cases a day but that dropped to 70,421 new infections reported yesterday, the lowest daily increase since March 31, health ministry data showed.
The number of deaths went up by 3,921, the data showed.
India has had the second-highest tally of Covid-19 infections in the world after the United States, with 29.51 million cases and 374,305 deaths, according to ministry data.
Authorities in Delhi allowed all shops and malls to re-open although bars, gyms, salons, cinemas and parks remained shut.
City chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said that markets and restaurants would be carefully watched this week.
"If we see coronavirus cases are going up, we will have to reimpose strict restrictions," Kejriwal said in a televised address on Sunday.
India's top tourist attraction the Taj Mahal will reopen this week. "Visitors will have to step on a sponge-like platform which will act as a sanitiser for shoes," a goverment official told AFP.
Hospitals in Delhi had struggled to provide oxygen cylinders and beds to patients last month as infections surged but earlier this month, the city allowed businesses to bring back 50% of employees and they partially resumed public transport.
In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, known for automobile manufacturing, some businesses were allowed to bring back 50% of employees and salons and liquor shops re-opened. Bus services remained suspended until June 21, reports Reuters.
In Bengaluru, the capital of neighbouring Karnataka state and a major tech hub, traffic returned to the streets as authorities allowed the partial re-opening of businesses though strict night and weekend curfews remained in place.
The pressure to resume some economic activity has grown as millions depend on daily wages to pay for food and rent.
"India needs to reopen as the challenge of maintaining a fine balance between lives and livelihoods is very crucial," said Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
DELTA VARIANT MUTATES
The highly infectious Delta variant of Covid-19 that first surfaced in India is feared to have mutated into a more virulent version called AY.1 or Delta+ -- one that is possibly capable of resisting even the monoclonal antibodies cocktail currently being prescribed as a cure for the virus.
According to Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the UK government's health and social care department, 63 genomes of Delta (B.1.617.2) with the new K417N mutation had been identified so far on the global science initiative GISAID.
In its latest report on Covid-19 variants, updated till last Friday, India had reported six cases of Delta+ as of June 7.
Dr Vinod Scaria, clinician and computational biologist at Delhi's Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, said an important point to consider regarding K417N was "evidence suggesting resistance to monoclonal antibodies Casirivimab and Imdevimab".
This cocktail has received emergency-use authorisation in the country from the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, reports TNN.
Scaria tweeted on Sunday that among the emerging variants, Delta+ (B.1.617.2.1) was characterised by the acquisition of the K417N mutation that maps to the receptor binding domain and has also been associated with immune escape.
"The variant frequency for K417N is not much in India. As Delta continues to evolve, acquiring new mutations, there is a lot of interest in understanding these mutations," he wrote, naming the new mutant Delta+.
Public Health England's report said the Delta-AY.1 version was found through routine scanning of variations in Delta. A small number of detected sequences had acquired the spike protein mutation K417N, it said.
Scientists attribute the earliest such sequence to Europe in late March.
Scaria said 127 sequences from Europe, Asia and America were now available in the public domain. Scaria pointed out that several genomes now available across the world were part of the AY.1 or B.1.617.2.1 lineage.