The White House on Friday announced plans to restrict travel from India amid a crushing coronavirus outbreak that that has brought a flood of emergency aid from around the world even as India struggles with record infection rates and thousands of deaths a day.
The Biden administration said that it was acting on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, joining other nations that have already stopped flights from India. The policy, which takes effect Tuesday, will not apply to citizens or permanent residents of the United States.
Meanwhile, desperately needed medical aid from the United States and other nations began to arrive in India. Two Air Force transport planes carrying U.S. supplies of oxygen cylinders, N95 masks and rapid diagnostic tests landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on Friday, carrying the first of several shipments that the White House pledged to help India combat the pandemic.
“Just as India came to our aid early in the pandemic, the U.S. is committed to working urgently to provide assistance to India in its time of need,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday on Twitter.
Roughly 40 countries are sending medical supplies to India, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said Thursday. Shipments are coming from wealthy countries, including Russia and Saudi Arabia, and smaller nations, such as Guyana and Uzbekistan.
India’s Health Ministry on Friday reported another record number of new cases, logging 386,452 infections over the previous 24 hours. India has now registered more than 300,000 new cases every day for the past nine days, bringing its total number of infections to more than 18.7 million.
There were 3,498 new fatalities reported, pushing India’s official death toll past 208,000, although medical experts say that number is probably a substantial undercount because of incomplete reporting on coronavirus-related deaths.
On Friday, just six intensive care beds were available for covid-19 patients in the capital, New Delhi, a city of more than 17 million, according to a government database. Crematoriums and burial grounds were also running out of space, according to local media reports, and in some places, funeral workers resorted to burning bodies in parking lots.
Fights have broken out among grieving families, and stocks of wood used for funeral pyres are running low.
“Ward rounds are now scenes from Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ ” Zarir Udwaria, a physician in Mumbai, wrote in the Financial Times. “Row upon row of patients waging a desperate struggle to breathe, their cries for help often falling on deaf ears as overworked medical staff struggle just to keep going.”
Meanwhile, several states said Friday that they would either halt or delay mass immunization campaigns because of a severe shortage of vaccine doses.
India, which began vaccinating vulnerable populations in January, was scheduled to begin a nationwide drive Saturday aimed at immunizing everyone over the age of 18. However, at least 15 states have said that they don’t have enough supplies, according to the Wire. In the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, officials have suggested that adults under 45 may not be able to get vaccinated until September.
Authorities in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, paused all vaccinations for three days starting Friday as reserves dried up. Vaccination centers posted signs warning people that doses had run out.
In Delhi, the chief minister said at a briefing Friday that the national capital territory had not yet received the doses it requested from both the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech to begin vaccinations.
He urged residents to stay home and away from vaccination centers.
“Don’t queue up for vaccines tomorrow. As soon as vaccines arrive, we will let you know. Then you can come for shots,” Arvind Kejriwal said, India’s NDTV reported.
“Many across the country have registered for vaccines, but we have not received stocks,” Kejriwal added. “We are in regular touch with companies, and we hope to get the vaccines in a day or two.”
India is one of the world’s largest vaccine producers, but it has struggled to ramp up production as global demand for specialized materials has soared. The shortage of doses is having a ripple effect in other South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka that have been relying on shipments from India for their vaccine drives.
The Serum Institute is manufacturing a domestic version of the vaccine from British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and Oxford University, while Bharat Biotech is producing Covaxin, a locally made shot.
But states and private hospitals in India have been largely left to fend for themselves, ordering doses directly from manufacturers. Critics say the system has contributed to the chaos.
The central government “seems to be shedding its own responsibility” when it comes to vaccine procurement, Gourav Vallabh, the national spokesman for the Indian National Congress, wrote in a column for the Wire news website.
“Who to procure vaccines from? What quantity to procure? At what price? How much to export?” he wrote. “Each state will now have to build its own strategy, arrange its own funds, use its own influence to get the vaccine stocks.”
India’s Supreme Court criticized the policy on Friday, saying that states were being forced to overpay for vaccines. The court suggested that the government reconsider, but it did not issue any binding judgments on the subject.
The vaccine shortfall comes as India is battling multiple virus variants, including one first discovered in the country in December. The variant, known as B.1.617, contains mutations associated with increased transmissibility and has now been found in more than a dozen nations, including China.
Because genome sequencing in India is limited, experts say, it is not yet clear whether B.1.617 is responsible for the current surge in cases. A more contagious variant first identified in Britain has helped spur several outbreaks.
On Friday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran told France Info radio that it was still not certain whether available coronavirus vaccines were effective against B. 1.617, after France detected its first three cases of the variant earlier this week, Reuters reported.
He said, however, that the danger of the variant must not be underestimated.
Hundreds of Indian scientists had appealed Thursday to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to release key epidemiological data they said was restricted to all but a few government experts and hindering the nation’s response to the crisis.
In an open letter, the scientists said that public information about the coronavirus – including data on sequencing, testing and immune response to vaccines – would help doctors and experts save lives.