India COVID cases soar as oxygen, vaccine shortages continue

India reports more than 300,000 daily cases as the head of the Serum Institute warns of a months-long vaccine shortfall.

Patients who contracted the coronavirus lie in beds while connected to oxygen supplies inside the emergency ward of a Covid-19 hospital in New Delhi, India [Rebecca Conway/Getty Images]

Hospitals in India continued to send distress messages for emergency oxygen supplies and a top vaccine-maker warned a vaccine shortfall could last for several months, as the country’s coronavirus case count approached 20 million on Monday.

India reported 368,147 new infections over the previous 24 hours, taking the number of people who have suffered an infection so far to 19.93 million, government data showed, the second-highest in the world.

India, in the grip of a devastating second wave, has logged more than 300,000 cases every day for more than 10 days. The overall death toll reached 218,959, with 3,417 more deaths reported.

Experts have said the numbers may be an underestimate, due to low testing rates and the number of people dying at home, particularly in rural areas.

The shortage of medical oxygen has also worsened. Twenty-eight patients died overnight, allegedly for want of the life-saving gas in hospitals in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh states, broadcaster NDTV reported. Officials did not confirm deaths due to oxygen shortages, but ordered a probe into the matter.

Leaders of 13 opposition parties urged the government to launch a free vaccination drive and ensure an uninterrupted flow of oxygen to all hospitals.

People carry a body of a man, who died from the coronavirus, at a crematorium in New Delhi [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Several hospitals sought court intervention over the weekend to provide oxygen supplies in New Delhi, where a lockdown has been extended by a week in an attempt to contain the wave of infections.

The Delhi High Court said it would start punishing government officials if supplies of oxygen allocated to hospitals are not delivered. “Water has gone above the head. Enough is enough,” it said.

The crisis that began two weeks ago has shown no signs of improving, despite assurances by authorities.

“We normally use about 3-3.5 metric tonnes of oxygen every day … we are now needing to use about 11 metric tonnes, and somehow we are managing to get in about 6-7 metric tonnes every day,” Arvind Soin of the Medanta Liver Transplant Institute told Al Jazeera.

Due to oxygen shortages, India’s Supreme Court has asked the government to consider imposing a nationwide lockdown, but not before “making the arrangements for hundreds of millions of daily wage earners”, Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam reported from New Delhi.

Nanhe Pal, 52, who is suffering from breathing problem, receives oxygen support for free at a Gurudwara (Sikh temple), amidst the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, India [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Last year’s nationwide lockdown caused immense hardship for many across the world’s second most populated nation.

Vaccine delays

In a fresh setback to the country’s vaccination drive, the Serum Institute of India’s Adar Poonawalla told the Financial Times in an interview that the company would be able to increase its capacity to 100 million doses by July, from the current 60-70 million a month.

Many in India had hoped for more doses, and sooner than July.

“Vaccine manufacturing is a specialised process. It is therefore not possible to ramp up production overnight,” Poonawalla wrote on Twitter later on Monday.

“We also need to understand that the population of India is huge and to produce enough doses for all adults is not an easy task. Even the most advanced countries and companies are struggling in relatively smaller populations,” he said.

India is reliant on supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured by SII, the world’s largest jab maker, which distributes it locally under the brand name Covishield.

India on Saturday widened its faltering vaccination drive to include anyone aged 18 or older. But many states have delayed the programme, citing shortages.

The country’s daily COVID-19 shots have fallen sharply from an all-time high reached early last month as domestic companies struggle to boost supplies and imports are limited, even as the country fights the world’s worst surge in infections.

People wait to receive a dose of the Covishield coronavirus vaccine at a health centre in New Delhi [Tauseef Mustafa/AFP]

Daily inoculations have averaged 2.5 million since hitting a peak of 4.5 million on April 5. A quadrupling of coronavirus cases during the period has collapsed the public health system in many regions of the country.

India, with the world’s biggest vaccine making capacity, has partially or fully immunised only 12 percent of its 1.35 billion people, according to data from the government’s Co-Win portal.

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced a donation of medicines worth more than 70 million dollars and is also in talks with the government to allow the use of its COVID vaccine in India, a spokesperson told the DPA news agency.

International aid has been arriving from some 40 countries, including Britain which is set to send 1,000 more ventilators to India. Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi are due to conduct a videoconference on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, several countries have restricted or banned travel from India, including the United States, starting Tuesday. After the worst-hit areas including New Delhi extended lockdowns, the states of Haryana, Punjab and Odisha have announced fresh restrictions to check the spread of infections.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies