Updated: March 18, 2021 7:21:43 am
Maharashtra on Wednesday reported this year’s record high of 23,179 Covid-19 cases, accounting for over 60 per cent of new cases diagnosed in India. This is close to the peak of 24,886 that the state recorded in September last year.
The next highest case load reported by a state on Wednesday — Punjab at 2,039 cases — is lower than that of Maharashtra cities such as Nagpur, Pune and Mumbai.
Considering the speed with which coronavirus cases have been rising in the state, the National Centre for Disease Control has called for more virus samples from Maharashtra to be sent for genome sequencing to ascertain whether the current surge is the result of any new, faster-transmitting mutant.
State health secretary Dr Pradeep Vyas said they expect the surge to continue over the next few weeks. “Our highest case load in a day may perhaps exceed what we recorded during last year’s peak,” he said, adding, “But the case fatality rate is 0.4 per cent. Most cases are asymptomatic and as we continue to test more, we will detect more cases. We still do not need to worry as a second surge was always expected.”
The last time Maharashtra crossed 20,000 cases was close to six months ago, on September 23, when the state recorded 21,029 cases. Days before that, on September 11, Maharashtra recorded its first peak at 24,886 cases.
The growth in Covid cases this second wave is faster than that witnessed in the first wave. In the fortnight between March 2 and March 17, the state saw a 126 per cent jump in daily new cases; last year, the rise in daily new cases was 69 per cent between August 27 and September 11.
The state is currently testing between 1 lakh and 1.20 lakh people a day, with a high positivity rate of 19.3 per cent. Until a fortnight ago, the positivity rate stood at 10.7 per cent. Daily cases have gone up three-fold in a fortnight — from 6,000-7,000 to over 20,000 now.
While the surge was first noted in early February in Nagpur, Amravati, Akola and Buldhana that form the Vidarbha region, it has now spread to Mumbai, Pune, and is further expected to cover Aurangabad, Nashik and Ratnagiri.
State health minister Rajesh Tope said they plan to carry out 1.50 lakh tests a day to utilise the full capacity of RT-PCR tests. “Our testing, tracing and treating numbers are good, We have advised districts to further improve their testing,” Tope told The Indian Express.
He added that the oxygen requirement had still not scaled to worrying levels. “We will cut industrial oxygen supply as and when needed,” he said.
The silver lining, health officials said, is the much lower hospitalisation and death rates as compared to last year. Of 3.70 lakh isolation beds in the state, over 60 per cent are vacant.
Health secretary Vyas added that the “lockdown is still not the solution” to control the pandemic. “Brazil seemed to have attained herd immunity, but a vaccine evading mutation has led to another wave there. In Maharashtra too, we don’t know how long the vaccine will be effective or what if a mutation comes along. Seeing the economic hardships the state has witnessed, lockdown will only delay the surge but not end it,” he said.
NCDC Director Dr Sujeet Singh told The Indian Express that more scientific evidence is needed to say with certainty that the surge in Maharashtra is attributable to new variants. “Once these mutations are correlated with the existing public health scenario, only then we can say that these new variants are a matter of concern. As of now, we need to do much more to build these correlations, and that is why it is important to do more genome sequencing on samples from Maharashtra,” he said.
More than 1,200 virus samples from Maharashtra have so far been sent for genome sequencing, at the Pune-based National Institute of Virology, and the National Centre for Cell Science. So far, two mutants, named E484Q and L452R, are being further investigated. Initial studies have shown that E484Q mutant can possibly escape antibody neutralisation, while L452R can increase the rate of infection. The samples that initially showed these two mutants were from Akola and Amravati. More detailed studies are being carried out.
“We do not have definite signals of any particular new variant that is pushing the pandemic surge, but work is underway at the genomic surveillance consortium of ten national institutes (called INSACOG) to work on genome sequencing of virus samples,” NITI Aayog member Dr V K Paul said at a media briefing in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Dr Rakesh Mishra, Director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, one of the laboratories engaged in genome sequencing, told The Indian Express that there was no dominant variant of the virus that could correlate with the surge in Maharashtra.
“There is no clear indication that the surge is largely due to a particular variant. At the moment, the prime cause of the surge could simply be a combination of few super spreader events and the fact that in most places Covid-appropriate behaviour is not being followed,” Mishra said.
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