World Health Organization’s Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan speaks during an interview on April 26.
World Health Organization’s Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan speaks during an interview on April 26. CNN via Skype

The actual number of Covid-19 cases in India is being significantly underreported, according to the World Health Organization’s Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan. 

In an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson, Swaminathan said that despite a dramatic increase in testing, it is likely that the true extent of the virus’s spread in the country is much worse. 

“While the testing capacity of India has increased dramatically, they are doing close to two million tests a day, that’s still not sufficient because the national average positivity rate is about 15%, in some cities like Delhi it’s up to 30% or higher,” Swaminathan told CNN Monday. 

“That means there are lots of people out there who are infected and not being detected just because of the capacity of testing… we will know only later how many was really the number of people infected.”

On Monday, India reported 352,991 cases of coronavirus, the fifth consecutive day of reporting more than 300,000 cases in a day, according to a CNN tally of figures from the Indian Ministry of Health.

The country has broken daily Covid-19 case records over the last five days. India’s death toll also continues to break records, with 2,812 deaths reported on Monday 

Swaminathan said that it is very possible that India’s death rate could also be undercounted and that she “expects” that to be the case. 

“As far as deaths are concerned, yes, it’s possible there are also under counting of deaths. Many countries have gone back, looked at their death figures retrospectively and corrected them. This has also happened in some states in India during the first wave. They went back and looked at the number of deaths and corrected them. I expect that the true number of deaths is larger, but it’s hard to see by how much,” she said.

Swaminathan also pointed to national surveys that showed that the amount of people who have actually already had the virus in India is “is at least 20 to 30 times higher than what had been reported” previously. The surveys cited were based on antibody measurements, she said.  

In the face of crisis, the government and India’s Serum Institute have shifted focus from supplying vaccines to COVAX to prioritizing their own citizens at home.

When asked how this will hurt developing countries, Swaminathan said that while “it is clear that India has to prioritize its domestic population and vaccinate as many people as possible to stop what’s happening,” COVAX countries can step up to help. 

“But at the same time we are appealing as COVAX to countries who have enough supplies of vaccines, emergency use approved vaccines that have already vaccinated more than 20 or 30% of their population, to please share their excess doses.” 

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