A forum of scientific advisers set up by the government warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country, five scientists who are part of the forum told Reuters.
Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the federal government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the COVID-19. Millions of largely unmasked people attended religious festivals and political rallies that were held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and opposition politicians.
The warning about the new variant in early March was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium, or INSACOG. It was conveyed to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister, according to one of the scientists.
INSACOG researchers first detected B.1.617, which is now known as the Indian variant of the virus, as early as February.
INSACOG shared its findings with the health ministry’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) before March 10, warning infections could quickly increase in parts of the country, the director of the northern India research centre said. The findings were then passed on to the Indian health ministry.
INSACOG began to prepare a draft media statement for the health ministry. The draft of the forums findings accessed by Reuters said the new Indian variant had two significant mutations to the portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, and it had been traced in 15 percent to 20 percent of samples from Maharashtra, India’s worst-affected state.
The draft statement said the mutations, called E484Q and L452R, were of “high concern”. It said “there is data of E484Q mutant viruses escaping highly neutralising antibodies in cultures, and there is data that L452R mutation was responsible for both increased transmissibility and immune escape”.
The ministry made the findings public about two weeks later, on March 24. The statement however failed to say the mutations were of “high concern”. The statement only said that more problematic variants required increased testing and quarantine.
Knowing the seriousness of the situation the government took no steps to prevent gatherings that hasten the spread of the new variant.
Modi, some of his top lieutenants, and dozens of other politicians, including opposition figures, held rallies across the country for local elections throughout March and into April.
The government also allowed the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival, attended by millions of Hindus, to proceed from mid-March.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers were allowed to remain camped on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi to protest against new agriculture laws.
The world’s second-most populous country is now struggling to contain a second wave of infections much more severe than its first last year, which some scientists say is being accelerated by the new variant.
India on Saturday set yet another daily global record with 401,993 new coronavirus cases, taking its tally to more than 19.1 million. Another 3,523 people died in the past 24 hours, raising the overall fatalities to 211,853, according to the health ministry.
The spike in infections is India’s biggest crisis since Modi took office in 2014.