New Delhi: Indian scientists are appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to publicly release virus data that would allow them to study, predict, and curb the spread of coronavirus cases.

It comes as COVID-19 cases climbed again on Friday, prompting the army to open its hospitals in a desperate bid to control a massive humanitarian crisis.

With 386,452 new cases, India now has reported more than 18.7 million since the pandemic began, second only to the US. The Health Ministry also reported 3498 deaths in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total to 208,330. Experts believe both figures are an under count, but it’s unclear by how much.

A man waits with his sample at a Covid-19 testing station in New Delhi, India, on Friday.Credit:Bloomberg

The country’s pandemic response has been marred by insufficient data and the online appeal — signed by more than 350 scientists on Friday afternoon — asks the government to release data about the sequencing of virus variants, testing, recovered patients and how people were responding to vaccines.

The appeal says that “granular” data on testing was inaccessible to non-government experts and some government experts too. Modelling work to predict future surges was being done by government-appointed experts with insufficient information. Similarly, scientists had failed to get information that would allow them to predict how many beds, oxygen or intensive care facilities would be needed, it said.

The appeal urged the government to increase the number of organisations sequencing the virus to study its evolution, and also the number of samples being studied.

“The ICMR database is inaccessible to anyone outside of the government and perhaps also to many within the government,” they wrote. “While new pandemics can have unpredictable features, our inability to adequately manage the spread of infections has, to a large extent, resulted from epidemiological data not being systematically collected and released in a timely manner to the scientific community.”

A family member performs the last rites of a COVID-19 victim at a crematorium in Jammu, India, on Friday.Credit:AP

The signatories include Gagandeep Kang, professor of microbiology at Christian Medical College in Vellore, who confirmed the letter to Bloomberg, and Gautam Menon, professor of biology at Ashoka University. An email to the ICMR wasn’t immediately answered.

The letter added that restrictions on importing scientific raw materials — to make India “self reliant” is a key goal for Modi and his government — was an obstacle. “Such restrictions, at this time, only serve to impede our ability to deal with COVID-19,” it said.

Meanwhile, families continued to flood social media and messaging apps with pleas for help: oxygen, beds, medicines, intensive care units and wood for funeral pyres.

Army chief MM Naravane met with Modi to discuss the crisis.

Naravane said the sick could approach their nearest army hospitals for help. Troops were also assisting with imported oxygen tankers and vehicles where specialised skills were required, a government statement said.

India has set a daily global record for more than a week with an average of nearly 350,000 infections. Daily deaths have nearly tripled in the past three weeks, reflecting the intensity of the latest surge.

In the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, a school teachers’ organisation said that more than 550 members have died after they were infected with COVID-19 while helping conduct local council elections this month, the Times of India newspaper reported.

Experts have blamed the surge on new, more contagious virus variants and mass public gatherings such as political rallies and religious events that were allowed to continue when numbers seemed under control in February. On Thursday, millions voted in state elections in West Bengal with little or no regard to social distancing.

Narendra Modi is not the first world leader to have paid the price for acting too slowly, or declaring victory too early in the pandemic.Credit:Bloomberg

In the southern state of Karnataka, Revenue Minister R Ashoka said nearly 2000 coronavirus patients under home care have switched off their phones and cannot be traced. Police were trying to track them as they might be seeking hospitalisation on their own, he said.

In central Madhya Pradesh state, three villages in Balaghat district have pooled money to convert buildings into COVID-19 care centres. They have purchased oxygen concentrators and started admitting patients. Government doctors are visiting the facilities twice a day.

The government plans to step up a faltering vaccination drive by allowing all adults over 18 to get their jabs from Saturday. It has so far administered 150 million vaccine doses, according to the Health Ministry.

Since January, nearly 10 per cent of Indians have received one dose, but only around 1.5 per cent have received both, though the country is one of the world’s biggest producers of vaccines.

Health Minister Harash Vardhan expressed hope that assistance being sent by some 40 countries would plug the shortage in medical supplies. The United States is sending more than $US100 million worth of items, including 1000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 masks and 1 million rapid diagnostic tests.

Japan said Friday it would send 300 ventilators and 300 oxygen concentrators in response to an Indian government request. “Japan stands with India, our friend and partner,” the Foreign Ministry said.

France, Germany, Ireland and Australia have also promised help, and Russia sent two aircraft carrying oxygen generating equipment. The Indian air force also airlifted oxygen containers from Singapore, Dubai and Bangkok.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday offered additional assistance. Chinese state media reported that Xi told Modi in a personal message of condolence that he was “very concerned about the recent situation”.

India’s External Affairs Minister S Jayashankar had a phone conversation with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and they agreed to keep transport corridors and cargo flights open, an Indian statement said.

Wang said China would ensure that all the required materials flow to Indian entities without any delay, it said.

The reports said the first batch of 25,000 oxygen concentrators pledged by Beijing arrived on Friday.

The assistance could be a step in thawing tensions between the two countries.

AP, Bloomberg

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