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Indian officials ignored warning new strain would spread fast

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Indian officials ignored their own panel of scientific advisors who warned in March that a virulent new strain of the coronavirus was spreading rapidly across the country.

The government didn’t move to impose restrictions, and allowed millions of people, mostly unmasked, to attend crowded religious festivals, protests and political rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and other politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition parties, Reuters reported.

Now India is facing a crushing wave of new infections, forcing overpacked hospitals to lock their gates as millions scramble for treatment and morgues overflow with COVID-19’s victims. Even a belated mass vaccination campaign is stumbling, with states running out of shots as infection rates soared to over 400,000 cases a day and deaths top 3,500 per day.

People line up to receive their Covid-19 vaccines at a mass vaccination center on April 29, 2021 in Mumbai, India.
People line up to receive their Covid-19 vaccines at a mass vaccination center on April 29, 2021 in Mumbai, India.
Fariha Farooqui/Getty Images

The warning about the new variant, which was detected in February, was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium. It was conveyed to the country’s health ministry and to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister, according to Reuters. The news agency couldn’t confirm if it was passed to Modi himself. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Flames rise from cremation pyres of victims of a fire that broke out in Vijay Vallabh COVID-19 hospital, at Virar, near Mumbai, India, Friday, April 23, 2021.
Flames rise from cremation pyres of victims of a fire that broke out in Vijay Vallabh COVID-19 hospital, at Virar, near Mumbai, India, Friday, April 23, 2021.
AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

When the country’s health ministry made public the discovery of the new variant, it did not express high concern, but said that the strain would be combated with testing and quarantine measures already underway. No steps to prevent large gatherings or impose lockdown measures were taken. New infections quadrupled between March 1 and April 1.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters wear masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they gather for a rally addressed by Modi ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India.
India’s death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 200,000 as a virus surge sweeps the country.
AP Photo/Bikas Das, File

“It was highlighted very, very clearly that unless drastic measures are taken now, it will be too late to prevent the mortality which we are going to see,” National Centre for Disease Control director Sujeet Kumar Singh said of another meeting that took place on April 18. Modi argued against lockdowns two days later, urging states to avoid them because of the damage to the economy.

Farmers and agricultural workers attend a rally against farm laws, in Barnala, northern state of Punjab, India, February 21, 2021
Farmers and agricultural workers attend a rally against farm laws, in Barnala, northern state of Punjab, India on February 21, 2021.
REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The Indian variant has now reached at least 17 countries including Britain, Switzerland and Iran. The US will begin restricting travel from India on Tuesday.

Naga Sadhus (Hindu holy men) take a holy dip in the waters of the Ganges River on the day of Shahi Snan (royal bath) during the ongoing religious Kumbh Mela festival, in Haridwar on April 12, 2021.
Naga Sadhus (Hindu holy men) take a holy dip in the waters of the Ganges River on the day of Shahi Snan (royal bath) during the ongoing religious Kumbh Mela festival, in Haridwar on April 12, 2021.
MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

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