Limit the damage
With the worsening humanitarian crisis in India, immediate and aggressive measures are needed to stabilize the situation and buy time to speed up vaccine production. The crisis is already diffusion beyond India’s borders and will require coordinated global action.
Speed is essential. Like Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization Noted in March 2020, “the biggest mistake is not moving … speed trumps perfection.” Over the past week, governments in countries like the UK, EU, Russia and the US have pledged to help, but they risk providing too little, too late.
Medical oxygen is in critical shortage in India, with daily estimate need 2 million oxygen cylinders far exceeding the national production capacity. India also needs medicines, hospital beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment, covid testing equipment and other basic medical supplies. More health workers may soon be needed to bolster India’s staff, who are currently working under immense pressure.
The United States has promised oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators and production units, antiviral drugs, test kits, access to vaccine manufacturing supplies and first aid flights arrival in India on Friday April 30. The EU has activated its civil protection mechanism to ship oxygen and medicine. First aid consignments from the UK arrived on Tuesday April 27 and included oxygen concentrators and ventilators.
Even this global aid response will not prevent a historic tragedy. Projections show that we are likely to see over 12,000 daily deaths in India by mid-May and nearly a million deaths in total by August.
This is why central and state governments in India must immediately adopt aggressive public health measures to keep the virus at bay. These could include travel restrictions, closures of workplaces and schools, social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, as well as social and economic support for the most vulnerable populations.
Such measures have been deployed inconsistently across India and in some cases have been undermined by political leaders. Several Indian regions, including Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra, have recently imposed strict travel and travel restrictions, but there is still no national approach.
Increasing vaccine manufacturing capacity will also be key to bringing the virus under control in India in the long term and slowing its spread around the world. Achieving this will require a coordinated global effort between business and government.
Slowly the Indian government is starting to take notice. The recent advance purchase payments will allow Bharat Biotech to double its production capacity, to 20 million doses per month, by June and reach 60 million per month by August. Likewise, the Serum Institute hopes to produce 100 million doses per month by the middle of the year. But this is not a short term solution. Unfortunately, the vaccines will not solve the acute crisis and no large stock of vaccines is currently available for import into India. Even the United States’ commitment to share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine worldwide will take months.