India wary of new variants as Covid wave sweeps China

New Delhi

India’s health minister has advised the public to take precautions against Covid-19, including vaccination and wearing masks, as the country remains alert to potential new variants emerging from the infection wave in neighboring China.

Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya told parliament on Thursday that India will start randomly testing 2% of international travelers arriving at the country’s airports after asking regional authorities to send positive samples to laboratories who monitor for new Covid strains.

“States have been instructed to make people aware of mask-wearing (the need), using hand sanitizer, maintaining respiratory hygiene and social distancing,” Mandaviya said in encouraging Indians to get vaccines or booster shots.

Speaking Wednesday at a meeting to review the country’s Covid situation amid rising cases in several Asian countries, Mandaviya said, “Covid is not over yet. I have instructed all involved to be vigilant and to increase surveillance.”

India, a country of 1.3 billion people, eased its Covid restrictions earlier this year after a drop in infections and people have mostly stopped wearing masks outside.

The Indian minister’s warnings come as China prepares for infections to spread from its biggest cities to its vast rural areas, after a hasty and ill-prepared exit from the zero-Covid strategy earlier this month.

On Wednesday, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed concern about the rising cases in China, stressing that he was concerned about “increasing reports of serious illnesses”.

“In order to carry out a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground, the WHO needs more detailed information on the severity of the disease, hospital admissions and ICU support requirements,” Tedros said at a press conference.

The surge could result in nearly 1 million deaths in China, according to a study published last week, which added it would also likely overwhelm many local health systems in the country.

Meanwhile, Chinese experts have warned that the worst could be yet to come. Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said last week that China will be hit by the first of three expected waves of infections this winter.

Last year, India was devastated by a second wave of Covid-19, killing tens of thousands and overwhelming the country’s healthcare system.

Since then, India has administered more than 2 billion Covid vaccines and nearly 75% of its population has received at least one dose, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

India has seen a “steady decline” in cases, with the country averaging about 150 infections a day as of December 19, according to the Health Ministry.

“We are ready to deal with any situation,” Health Minister Mandaviya said said in a Twitter post Wednesday.

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