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Has coronavirus peaked in India?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
October 22, 2020

A government-appointed team of scientists has claimed that COVID-19 in India may have already peaked and will run its course by February next year. Independent health experts are cautiously optimistic.

Durga Puja festival in India
Image: Sudipta Bhoumick

The COVID-19 cases in India had peaked in mid-September and the active cases can largely be contained by February if preventive guidelines are followed, a government-appointed panel of scientists said last week.

"Without a lockdown, the number of deaths in India would have overwhelmed the [health] system within a very short span of time, and would have eventually surpassed 2.6 million," said M Vidyasagar, a panel member from the Indian Institute of Technology.

"The prompt imposition of a lockdown on March 24 has kept the death toll to around 115,000," he added.

Read more: Coronavirus: India's public health system on the verge of collapse

According to the panel, the number of daily new coronavirus infections in the country will continue to fall and the pandemic may be controlled by February 2021, provided all health protocols are followed and the government does not relax social distancing rules further.

The committee also claimed that around 30% of India's population has developed antibodies against the virus.

"I think that daily active cases, which are currently around 800,000, will drop below 40,000 by the end February 2021 if we continue to take safety measures," said another panel member, Manindra Agrawal.

So far, India has recorded over 7.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 116,616 related deaths. India is the second-worst affected country by the pandemic after the US.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine: Why does India's Serum Institute have a head start?

Cautious optimism

Independent health experts are cautiously optimistic about the panel's findings.

"In the next six months, we could see a reverse trend of what has happened in the first six months since the start of the pandemic," T Jacob John, one of India's top virologists, told DW.

"The cases will go down; however, the government's panel has grossly underestimated the actual number of infections in the country. They are much more than what has been reported," he added.

According to the Indian Council of Medical Research, the actual prevalence of COVID-19 in India might be 80 to 100 times higher than the recorded cases. This means that there could be between 536 million to 670 million coronavirus-affected people in the country.

Read more: Coronavirus exacerbates India's hunger problem

No room for complacency

While the virus' transmission might be on the decline, experts urge authorities to raise the level of caution to minimize new infections and deaths.

"We cannot lower our guard. Protective measures, healthcare interventions and attempts to make a vaccine must continue simultaneously," S P Thygarajan, a virologist from the Sri Ramchandra University in Chennai, told DW.

Priscilla Rupali, an infectious disease expert at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, warned that any relaxation could be dangerous, pointing to the current uptick in coronavirus cases in Europe.

"The decline in the COVID-19 rates is encouraging. It is a good sign but we cannot afford to be lax. We need to prepare for the future as the virus can prove all predictions wrong," Rupali told DW.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a short televised message on Tuesday, saying that the virus still needs to be defeated and that people must follow safety measures like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing during the upcoming festival season.

"People aren't being careful anymore. This isn't right. If you step out without a mask, you put your families at risk," the PM said. "In this festive season, markets are bright again but we need to remember that the lockdown might have ended but the virus still persists," he added.

Read more: Coronavirus: Why hand-washing is a luxury for most Indians

The World Health Organization (WHO) also urged caution. "There should be no complacency in view of the declining numbers in recent weeks," Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO's regional director for Southeast Asia, said in a statement.

"The pandemic continues unabated and the region still reports large numbers of COVID-19 cases. We need to continue to do our very best. Our response needs to be strengthened further to curtail the pandemic," she added.