Amid a spurt in coronavirus cases, the government on Thursday said India has not yet reached the community transmission stage of COVID-19 and asserted that there have been localised outbreaks in some geographical areas.
The Centre's assertion came on a day India registered a record single-day surge of 24,879 COVID-19 cases, taking the caseload to 7,67,296 while the death toll climbed to 21,129 with 487 new fatalities, the updated Union health ministry data at 8 am showed.
The ministry said despite the India being the second most populous country, its COVID-19 cases and deaths per million population are amongst the lowest in the world.
"In spite of a population of 1.3 billion people, India has been able to manage COVID-19 relatively well," Rajesh Bhushan, Officer on Special Duty in the Union health ministry said.
According to the World Health Organization report, India has 538 cases per million population while it is at least 16-17 times more in some countries, Bhushan said.
"Again we have 15 deaths per million population, whereas we have countries where it is 40 times as much," he said.
Asked if India has entered the community transmission phase, Bhushan said, "Even today, the health minister (Harsh Vardhan) clearly said after the GoM that India has not reached the stage of community transmission. In some geographical areas, there have been localised outbreaks."
"We should not forget that in our country, 49 districts alone account for 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases. In a country of more than 733 districts, if 49 districts account for 80 per cent cases, then it is not justified to talk about community transmission," he said at a press briefing.
Wherever there are active cases, if the prescribed protocol is followed, in three days close contacts of such cases can be traced and tracked, he said.
"So in such a situation in which you can trace and track close contacts of active cases, talking about community transmission is not justified," Bhushan said, adding that the WHO has also not given a specific definition of localised outbreak and community transmission.
They (WHO) have given this right to their member states to analyse the situation and do its reporting which the global body shows on its website, he said.
On an average, India is testing more than 2.6 lakh samples per day for COVID-19, an ICMR official said at the briefing, asserting that testing has been ramped up in the country in a big way.
COVID-19 recovered cases are 1.75 times that of active cases, Bhushan said.
"The gap between active COVID-19 cases and recovered cases is progressively increasing in the country. As on July 9, the recovery rate stands at 62.09 per cent," he said.
Asked about a WHO spokesperson saying that there are indications that the virus may be airborne, Bhushan said, "We are keeping abreast with the information coming out of the WHO headquarters on this particular aspect, but you would all appreciate and realise that even during the initial stages of the outbreak, we and the PM had repeatedly emphasised on 'do-gaz doori' (Two-metre distance).
"So this concept protects you from small droplets that may remain suspended in air for longer period of time." It is an "evolving and dynamic" situation, he added.
The ministry official further said people over 60 years account for 53 per cent of India's COVID-19 -inked deaths.
Of the total COVID-19 deaths in India, one per cent are from the age group of 14 years and below, 3 per cent from 15 to 29 years age group, 11 per cent from 30 to 44 years age group, 32 per cent from 45-59 years age group, 39 per cent from 60-74 years age group and 14 per cent from 75 years and above age category.
When asked to comment over ICMR Director General's letter envisaging the launch of COVID-19 vaccine by August 15, the ministry officials clarified that the spirit behind the letter was "only to expedite duly approved clinical trials without compromising on safety and security concerns".
The sites for carrying out phase 1 and 2 human clinical trials for the potential COVID-19 vaccine have been finalised but the trials are yet to begin, Bhushan said.
"In record time, indigenous vaccine candidates have been developed for the new disease. The aim of the letter was to ask sites to fast-track it. We need the vaccine today, if we go by conventional methods to develop the vaccine and take two years then there is no use of it," scientist at ICMR Nivedita Gupta said.
Asked about reports of black-marketing and overpricing of drugs used in COVID-19 treatment, Bhushan said the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) has written to the companies which are manufacturing these drugs and made two specific suggestions -- they must put in place a 24x7 helpline and proactively put out their distribution and supply details on their website.
Responding to a question on whether Remdesivir will be removed from COVID-19 treatment after there were indication of its negative impact on the liver, Bhushan said that it is a rapidly evolving situation.
"Not only in respect of Remdesivir, but in respect of Tocilizumab also, there have been a few studies which have indicated some adverse events. We are aware of this and within the ministry, there is a technical group of domain knowledge experts headed by DGHS that is looking into the evidence as it comes up.
"If there would be a requirement to modify or refine our clinical treatment protocols, we will definitely do it," he said.