New Delhi: On January 7, China made an announcement and informed the world about the spread of Novel Coronavirus. By January 30, the novel virus had made an entry in India when the country reported its first case of COVID-19 in Kerala. Today (April 1), after two months, the number of confirmed cases in the country has gone up to 1397, of which 35 people have lost their lives, as per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. In a status report submitted to the Supreme Court regarding the country’s preparedness to combat the pandemic recently, the centre said it had taken a proactive, pre-emptive and graded response to COVID-19, and the spread of the virus in the country is much slower than compared to several other countries.
According to the government a total of 15.25 lakh passengers have been screened at the airports, 40,000 were screened at the 12 major seaports and 65 minor ports and 20 lakh people were screened at all land borders posts for the spread of the virus.
The government also said one of the initial steps the country took was to send the list of all passengers, as obtained from Bureau of Immigration to the states for monitoring international passengers as per medical protocol. So far a total of 3,48,000 passengers are brought under such medical/health monitoring as per such risk profile and symptomatic cases are hospitalized and treated.
Moreover, at the start of this crisis, India had just one lab in January 2020 at Pune, now the country has a total of 118 labs with a capacity to undertake sampling of 15,000 tests per day, according to the government. The government has also roped in 47 private laboratory chains for the testing purpose, which have more than 20,000 collection centres in the country which will now be able to collect the sample for Coronavirus. The government in its status report also mentioned about the facilities and infrastructure being built in the country in this 21-days lockdown time to fight COVID-19 and added several states have already initiated actions to change existing hospitals exclusively dedicated for the COVID-19 treatment and to convert existing unoccupied ‘non-hospital buildings’ into temporary COVID-19 hospitals. Union Minister for Health & Family Welfare, Dr Harsh Vardhan talked about scaling up of the hospital equipments to cope with the crisis said, “15,000 ventilators have been made available dedicatedly for coronavirus and 30,000 more will be available in a week’s time. We will keep on adding the number o ventilators and other necessary equipment, I can assure, all the required efforts are being made by the health ministry of India.”
NDTV spoke to experts from around the world to know all about coronavirus fight and India’s preparedness. The experts talked about key areas India needs to focus at this crucial stage of COVID-19 outbreak, during a townhall conducted in partnership with Facebook. Here are some excerpts.
Question: What can India learn from Italy’s Experience?
Dr Daniela Cirilloa, Medical Microbiologist, Milano, Italy: The first message what we learned from our experience in Italy is that you need to protect your doctors because if you start losing your healthcare workers or start quarantining them then your health system will collapse. In addition, there is a message for the population as well, practising social distancing is very important, you need to keep the people lockdown because if they get sick, the burden will increase on hospitals, hospitals bed, ICUs and ventilators and no country is actually prepared to take the burden of their entire population in the hospitals.
India should know, at their given population that they are fighting a very serious enemy, testing should be done for anyone and everyone, even for people with no symptoms because if even one person spread the virus it will affect the entire country.
Question: How can industries contribute towards the fight against COVID-19?
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, CMD, Biocon India Limited: Currently the main challenge in India is ‘testing’. We must keep testing to fight the war against COVID-19 but the country is not been able to test enough people. There are many who are positive for this deadly virus but we are unable to report because we have not been able to test them or identify them. We have extended testing facilities to private sectors for COVID-19 and what we are finding from them is that the kits are in short supply because these are in high demand world over.
So, what is happening in India is that there is one company who has indigenously developed diagnostic kits but we need to add to this requirement, given the coronavirus outbreak. So, now many labs who can actually develop this kit are doing this. In order to contribute to the fight, all of us in the biotech sector are developing what we call as probes or primers so that we can actually carry out these test in large numbers. In addition to this, the biotech sector is also developing anti-body tests, vaccine development is being looked at – coronavirus is an invisible enemy which nobody knows how to counter. Ventilators, gloves, mask and other protective gears in our country is in short supply and I think, every industry should come forward and help meet this huge demand by developing whatever they can.
One message that I would like to give in the wake of coronavirus is that COVID-19 has come as a wake-up call, we as a country have underinvested in public health, underinvested in communicable diseases, and we have neglected and ignored the study of viruses that have infected humans over the period of time. Life after coronavirus will be a lot more different, I believe, we have a lot of skills and scientific knowledge or resources, which we have not taken advantage of. Being a biotech company we are for now working on building more testing kits and giving a contribution to buy more ventilators.
Question: What are the currently available options to test patients for COVID-19 and what more is needed?
Dr Randeep Guleria, Director AIIMS: We should gradually move to testing in the house or have mobile vans which can test people in one community instead of people coming and queuing in the hospitals and getting infected from others who have this virus or infecting others with this deadly virus. That is the strategy which is being looked out and a lot of the private and government labs are now working on this strategy. Now, the government is also sending healthcare workers for home tests, when people call via helpline and if someone fits into the testing criteria then the government will send an individual who will have his protective gears to take the nasal or throat swab and bring it in the viral transport media back to the lab. This step is very crucial and necessary because we cannot have an infected person going to the hospital or lab which is crowded and spreading the infection to others. The test needs to be done at home or an isolation ward.
Question: To implement more home testing what are the requirements to keep in mind?
Dr Randeep Guleria, Director AIIMS: Yes, a strategy is needed to be developed in India for moving from hospital or lab testing phases to home testing. Maybe the possibility of mobile vans can be looked INTO upon and instead of individual home tests, for now, we can start with community tests. A single man can cover a larger area and can go back to the lab and give the samples for testing.
Obviously, anyone who will go out to take the test for the COVID-19 will need to have the protective gears on as they will actually come in contact with people who may be infected with the deadly virus. And if the healthcare person will put a swab down in the infected person’s throat or mouth and they cough, then the chances of the healthcare person getting the infection are high. So it is very important for health workers also to take proper care. India has announced a lockdown for 21-days and this is the crucial time to build and work on all these strategies, which the government currently along with healthcare workers and experts are actually doing.
Question: Currently, what are serious knowledge gaps related to novel coronavirus?
Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, World Health Organisation: There are quite a few knowledge gaps, when it comes to fighting coronavirus and which we need to learn about, right away. Most important being to learn about the transmission of the novel virus in the communities and what are the factors that can break the chain of the infection. We also need to know who are the most infectious people in the community – are they young adults, are they people transmitting before they show symptoms. What is the role of children, how long ARE people infectious for, when IS it is safe for them to start mixing with others and lastly what are the measures countries are taking to fight COVID-19. The virus is very new and the number of things we as scientists have learned over the past few months is very positive for the country in terms of knowledge. There are a lot of gaps when it comes to coronavirus but those shall be answered with time and everyone’s knowledge.
Question: How will the Lockdown help in fighting the coronavirus outbreak in India?
Dr Arvind Kumar, Chairman, Center for Chest Surgery and Director, Institute of Robotic Surgery at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital (SGRH), Founder & Managing Trustee, Lung Care Foundation: Lockdown has given India a crucial time to prepare for healthcare facilities in two areas – one is the infrastructure and other is the manpower bit. Government of India has already said that they already have orders for 15,000 ventilators and are trying to get 30,000 more. So, there will be around of 45,000 ventilators available by a week or two, that is the huge number to be added. We also have modifications being made where one ventilator is being connected to two or maybe four people. Large numbers of hospitals are being set up with dedicated ICU beds to fight the pandemic. This is one part, the hardware part, the next part is the software part, where India needs to train nurses, support staff or doctors to manage COVID-19 patients as these are very sick people who need to be taken care of in a specialised manner. With this lockdown, India will be more prepared to fight coronavirus and it will also reduce the mortality rate in the country, unlike what has happened in Italy and other countries.