The World Health Organization chief was alarmed at India’s record-breaking wave of Covid-19 cases and deaths, saying the organisation was rushing to help address the crisis.
“The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.
He spoke as India battles a catastrophic coronavirus wave that has overwhelmed hospitals, with crematoriums working at full capacity.
A surge in recent days has seen patients’ families taking to social media to beg for oxygen supplies and locations of available hospital beds, and has forced the capital New Delhi to extend a week-long lockdown.
“WHO is doing everything we can, providing critical equipment and supplies,” Tedros said.
He said the UN health agency was among other things sending “thousands of oxygen concentrators, prefabricated mobile field hospitals and laboratory supplies”.
The WHO also said it had transferred more than 2,600 of its experts from various programmes, including polio and tuberculosis, to work with Indian health authorities to help respond to the pandemic.
India, with a population of 1.3 billion, has an official tally of 17.31 million infections and 195,123 deaths, although health experts say the figures probably run higher.
“The exponential growth that we’ve seen in case numbers is really, truly astonishing,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, told reporters.
“This can happen in a number of countries … if we let our guard down,” she said.
“We’re in a fragile situation.”
The Indian crisis has taken a toll on the Covax programme aimed at providing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, with a particular focus on 92 poorer nations.
Prior to the surge, India was exporting tens of millions of AstraZeneca shots made domestically by the Serum Institute through Covax, which is co-run by the WHO, the Gavi vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
But once cases started surging, New Delhi froze exports, including to Covax to prioritise India.
This has left Covax short 90 million doses that had been intended for 60 low-income countries in March and April, the WHO and Gavi said.
“Those have not been made available given the crisis in India. Now they’re being used domestically,” Gavi chief Seth Berkley told the briefing.
Covax, he said, was “looking at other options” while waiting for the supplies to resume.
Among other things, the Covax partners have appealed to countries that have excess vaccine doses to share them with the programme.
To date, some 40.8 million Covid-19 vaccine doses have been distributed to 118 countries and territories through Covax.