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Scientists yet to classify variant as Indian strain

A representational image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.Getty ImagesBlackJack3D

A mixture of three quasi-subspecies of SARS-CoV-2 is in circulation in India, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said on Tuesday. These imported variants showed no differences from how they behaved in the place of origin. Scientists are yet to classify a SARS-Cov-2 variant as an Indian strain.

R. Gangakhedkar, head of the ICMR’s Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases-I Division, said, “India’s COVID-19 cases were mainly from people with travel history and their immediate contacts, which is to say that this virus was brought in from outside. We are not seeing any variation from what is being seen on how this strain is behaving around the world. So there is no difference in its severity. However, in a large country like India, it’s difficult to predict an accurate trend about the progression of COVID-19 because we still don’t have enough time gap between the upswing of cases.” This, he explained, did not change India’s reporting, isolation or testing protocol.

He said the progression in terms of cases could not be compared with any other country as of now and people should be looking at the risk of exposure and adherence to physical distancing.

Over 400 people with COVID-19 symptoms hospitalised, over 1,000 quarantined

Under watch: People being evacuated from the Tablighi Jamaat centre in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi on Tuesday. R.V. Moorthy

With at least 24 of its occupants testing positive for the novel coronavirus, an Islamic centre in the national capital has turned out to be the latest hotspot of COVID-19. More than 400 people with symptoms were admitted to different hospitals and over 1,100 shifted to government-run quarantine facilities in Delhi alone over Monday and Tuesday, officials said.

Hundreds of others who returned home after staying at the centre over the last fortnight might have carried the virus to several States, authorities fear.

Thousands of people from across the country, as well as from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Saudi Arabia, attended a gathering at the centre earlier this month over a number of days, officials said. A large number of them were stuck on the premises as the country went into lockdown on March 24. Markaz Nizamuddin is the international headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, a puritanical Islamic sect.

The Delhi police on Tuesday registered a case against Maulana Saad and others from Tablighi Jamaat under Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, read with Sections 269, 270, 271 and 120-B of the IPC, for violation of government directions in respect of restriction of gatherings and safety measures, including physical- distancing.

‘No transport available’

The centre said, in a statement, that many participants could not leave as all means of transport came to an abrupt halt on March 24, though it tried to make special arrangements with permission from the authorities. “Under such compelling circumstances, there was no option for Markaz Nizamuddin but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions till the situation becomes conducive to their movement or arrangements are made by the authorities.”

Close community interactions in prayer, dining and travel among Jamaat followers put them at a high risk of the contagion. Participants at the recent congregation included people from Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala — in cases already known.

One of those who attended, a Srinagar-based businessman, died on March 26. He had travelled by air, train and road to Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and back to Jammu and Kashmir. At least 300 people who came in contact with him have been put under quarantine.

Sowing has not commenced in many places in Karnataka mainly due to shortage of labourers

Cause for concern: A file photo of a farmer harvesting maize in Shivamogga district of Karnataka.

Despite the Karnataka government being on overdrive to ensure that agricultural activities continue to be normal during the unprecedented crisis caused by COVID-19, officials are keeping their fingers crossed about pre-monsoon crop cultivation.

Besides the main crops such as ragi and maize, farmers cultivate green gram, black gram and sesame, especially in Mysuru, Chamarajanagar, Mandya and Hassan districts, during this season.

A senior Agriculture Department official acknowledged that there is concern whether farmers will take up cultivation of these crops given the situation.

According to the official, the preparatory work for sowing normally starts by the first week of April. “In a few places, sowing has been completed, but it has not even commenced in many places. In agriculture timing is very important. If sowing is delayed, it will hurt the yield and overall productivity,” he said.

He also said that people across the board were staying indoors and labour was in short supply. “We are appealing to farmers to continue with their agricultural activities while also staying safe. District administrations are working with dealers to ensure there is enough supply of seeds and fertilizers,” the official said.

Explaining the importance of pre-monsoon crop for the kharif crop that will follow, another official said that those who grow pre-summer crops normally let plants grow on their fields after harvesting the crops.

“The plant stubs become green manure when farmers prepare the fields when monsoon arrives. Pre-monsoon crop contributes to less than 10% of the total agricultural production in the State, but remains important,” the official said.

Though pre-monsoon crop depends on early rains in rain-fed regions, farmers with their own irrigation facilities do not wait for the rains.

Waiting for harvest

Meanwhile, in the paddy belt in the irrigated regions of north Karnataka, the crop is waiting to be harvested. An official said the paddy on fields in Raichur, Ballari, Koppal and Gangavathi were ready for harvesting, but farmers were facing labour issues though the department has allowed them to get farm machineries for harvesting.

It asks the media to publish official version to avoid panic; government told to issue a daily bulletin

The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the right to free discussion about COVID-19, even as it directed the media to refer to and publish the official version of the developments in order to avoid inaccuracies and large-scale panic.

It ordered the government to start a daily bulletin on COVID-19 developments through all media avenues in the next 24 hours.

A Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde, was responding to a request from the Central government that media outlets, in the “larger interest of justice”, should only publish or telecast anything on COVID-19 after ascertaining the factual position from the government.

A Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) report in the court, signed by Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla, explained that “any deliberate or inaccurate” reporting by the media, particularly web portals, had a “serious and inevitable potential of causing panic in larger section of the society”.

The Ministry said any panic reaction in the midst of an unprecedented situation based on such reporting would harm the entire nation. Creating panic is also a criminal offence under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Ministry said.

But the court took a view balancing free press and the need to avoid panic in society during an unprecedented crisis. “We expect the media [print, electronic or social] to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated. A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues, including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people, would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor- General of India. We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments,” the court ordered. Noting that the 21-day nationwide lockdown was “inevitable” in the face of an “unprecedented global crisis” like the COVID-19 pandemic, the government blamed “fake and misleading” messages on social media for creating widespread panic, which led to mass “barefoot” journey of migrant workers from cities to their native villages in rural India.

Fake news

“Deliberate or inadvertent fake news and material capable of causing a serious panic in the minds of the public is found to be the single most unmanageable hindrance in the management of this challenge... Will set up a separate unit headed by a Joint Secretary-level officer in the Health Ministry and consisting of eminent specialist doctors from recognised institutions like AIIMS to answer the queries of citizens,” the Ministry’s 39-page status report said.

The Ministry said the Narendra Modi government, in fact, took “pro-active, pre-emptive and timely” action 13 days before even the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a “public health emergency of international concern”. Very few countries responded as well as India.

But the mass migration of the poor would defeat the preventive measures taken by the Central government, the Ministry said. It said “there was no necessity for migrant workers to rush to their villages” when the Centre, fully conscious that no citizen should be deprived of basic amenities, had announced a ₹1.70 lakh crore package under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to take care of their daily needs.

Lack of contact, travel history amid spike in cases

As most COVID-19 patients in Indore, where 17 persons tested positive on Tuesday, have no contact or travel history, health workers are grappling to identify the source, indicating the most populous and largest city of Madhya Pradesh may already be witnessing the community transmission stage.

“We are not able to detect the source as such, because there is no person with international travel history who has tested positive,” said Salil Sakalle, Professor, Community Medicine, Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College, Indore, the only facility testing for the illness in western Madhya Pradesh.

Dr. Sakalle pointed out there were some patients with national travel history. “During travel, they probably might have come in contact [with those infected],” he said.

Indore bears the burden of 44 patients, most residents of congested localities, of the 66 cases in the State. In addition, three persons from the city died of COVID-19. Besides, eight cases in Jabalpur, six in Ujjain, four in Bhopal, and two each in Shivpuri and Gwalior have been registered.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), community transmission is evidenced by the inability to relate confirmed cases through chains of transmission for a large number of cases, or by increasing positive tests through sentinel samples.

“Coincidently almost all positive cases, including first ones, have come from congested areas, so probably they have done a lot of community transmission,” Dr. Sakalle said. Though pockets have been identified, that doesn’t spell a possible wiping out of the virus locally. “If we are able to contain it in certain pockets and cover all contacts, then maybe we can make it controlled. We have no way to control their [overall] number,” he added.

Aggressive testing in relation to other cities such as Bhopal and Jabalpur has yielded more numbers too. Until March 30, the college had tested 261 samples since March 21. “Most cases in the first lot for Indore were those admitted to government and private hospital ICUs whose samples we took to test for acute severe respiratory illnesses when the testing for COVID-19 was restricted to only those with travel history abroad. When the ICMR revised the guidelines, we ran their samples for COVID-19 too, and many tested positive,” explained Dr. Sakalle.

Those who had come into contact with these persons tested positive. “Those who’re dying, are either elderly or have some co-morbidities of diabetes or hypertension,” he said.

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