India on Tuesday reported at least six cases of the new coronavirus strain detected in the United Kingdom, prompting the government to direct genome sequencing of samples from all passengers who arrived in India from December 9 to 22 and tested positive for COVID-19 or were symptomatic as it ramped up the surveillance and containment strategy.
Among the UK-returnees found infected by the new strain is a 47-year-old woman who had managed to give the slip to authorities in New Delhi after returning to India on December 21 and had reached Andhra Pradesh by train before being picked up, but the state health commissioner stressed that none of her contacts have been found infected.
A temporary ban on the flights connecting to the United Kingdom could be extended beyond December 31, Union minister Hardeep Puri indicated as authorities stressed the need to remain vigilant, noting that though the cases have been declining in India, they are on the rise globally and the new strain detected in the UK had spread to several countries.
At the same time, Principal Scientific Advisor K Vijay Raghavan as well as other experts maintained that so far it has not been found that the new variant increases the severity of the disease.
As it announced the successful completion of the two-day dry-run of vaccination exercise in four states, the government also dismissed apprehensions that the current vaccines may prove ineffective against the new strain.
"There is no evidence that current vaccines will fail to protect against COVID 19 variants reported from the UK or South Africa. Most vaccines do target the Spike protein, in which there are changes in the variants but vaccines stimulate our immune system to produce a wide range of protective antibodies," Raghavan said.
The Union ministry had directed that about 33,000 passengers who disembarked at various Indian airports from the UK from November 25 to December 23 midnight be subjected to RT-PCR tests and samples of those found positive be sent for genome sequencing to chek for the presence of the variant coronavirus.
The health ministry said out of 114 samples of UK returnees who tested positive, the variant genome of SARS-CoV-2 was detected in six -- three samples in the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences Hospital Bengaluru, two in the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and one in the National Institute of Virology Pune.
Separate reports from states said that one person who returned to Tamil Nadu from the UK tested positive for the new strain.
He has been isolated in a separate room in the King Institute of Preventive Medicine and Research, Tamil Nadu Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan said.
Karnataka health minister K Sudhakar said that according to the preliminary information the three who tested positive in Bengaluru include a mother and child.
In Hyderabad, a top official of CMB said three people who returned from the UK had the new strain.
Of the 12 UK-returned passengers in Andhra Pradesh who tested positive for COVID-19, only the 47-year-old woman had the new strain, state Health Commissioner Katamaneni Bhaskar said, citing a report of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad.
Eight passengers who travelled by the same coach on AP Express as the UK-returned woman, from New Delhi to Visakhapatnam had tested negative for COVID-19.
"We are constantly monitoring the situation and there is no need to panic. I appeal to people not to believe in rumours," the Commissioner added.
The Union health ministry has now said that samples of all international passengers who arrived in India from December 9 to 22 and tested positive for COVID-19 will be subjected to genome sequencing.
Others will be followed up by the state and district surveillance officers and will be tested as per ICMR guidelines, even if asymptomatic, between the fifth and 10th day of arrival, according to the Ministry's guidance document on genomic sequencing.
"All the international passengers who have arrived in India during the last 14 days (from December 9 to 22), if symptomatic and tested positive, will be subjected to genome sequencing," the document stated.
All the persons who have been found infected with the new strain have been kept in single room isolation at designated health care facilities by respective state governments and their close contacts have also been put under quarantine, the union health ministry said.
"Comprehensive contact tracing has been initiated for co-travellers, family contacts and others. Genome sequencing on other specimens is going on.
"The situation is under careful watch and regular advice is being provided to the states for enhanced surveillance, containment, testing and dispatch of samples to INSACOG labs," the ministry said.
NITI Aayog member (health) Dr V K Paul said there has been a consistent decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths which is reassuring given the current scenario across the world, but added that the UK variant has travelled to several other countries and also to India.
“This variant may have its own run and we have to very careful," Paul said.
The daily new COVID-19 cases in the country touched a new low with less than 16,500 new cases being added to the national tally after a gap of 187 days, the Union Health Ministry said on Tuesday, adding India's active caseload has fallen to 2,68,581 as on date.
"We are consistently showing a decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases, active cases and deaths, which is very reassuring. It stands out particularly during this very period when several nations are facing a devastating situation," Paul said.
The presence of the new UK variant has already been reported by Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore, so far.
Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri indicated India is likely to extend the suspension of passenger flights connected to the United Kingdom which came into effect from midnight of 23rd December 2020 till 31st December 2020.
"I foresee a slight extension of temporary suspension of India-UK flights," the minister told a press conference, adding, "In a day or two, we will find out if any additional steps need to be taken, or when we can start easing the current temporary suspension," he said.
The health ministry said a dry run to assess the readiness for the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out programme was successfully undertaken in four states -- Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab and Assam -- on December 28 and 29
Field feedback on the first day of the dry run was also reviewed on 29th December through video conferencing with State and District Programme officers by Joint Secretary (Public Health).
"All states expressed satisfaction in terms of the operational approach and use of IT platform to ensure transparency and effective monitoring of vaccination processes expected to cover a large number of people across the country. Additional suggestions on IT platform were also noted for further enhancement of Co-WIN platform," the ministry said.
In the wake of the new coronavirus strain, the health ministry has established the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium for laboratory and epidemiological surveillance and to expand the whole genome sequencing of the coronavirus in the country, aiding in the understanding of how the virus spreads and evolves.
The positive samples have been sent to 10 INSACOG labs (NIBMG Kolkata, ILS Bhubaneswar, NIV Pune, CCS Pune, CCMB Hyderabad, CDFD Hyderabad, InSTEM Bengaluru, NIMHANS Bengaluru, IGIB Delhi, NCDC Delhi) for genome sequencing.
States have been asked to send five percent of their COVID-19 positive samples for genome sequencing at the 10 designated labs to detect the new coronavirus variant.
Standard Operating Procedure for Epidemiological Surveillance and Response in the context of the new variant of SARS-CoV-2 has already been issued by the health ministry.