Medical staff are briefed at the Government Rural Hospital in Palghar, India.

Amid India’s Covid-19 Surge, U.S. Offers Belated Medical Aid

Covid-19 cases continued to climb in India this week, with official statistics showing more than 400,000 new cases per day — and estimates suggesting that the true number of cases could be 10 times higher than reported totals, or more. The unexpected surge has led to severe shortages of medical supplies. Hospitals have had to turn people away. Amid the mass dying, people in rural areas have struggled to find care. In the hard-hit state of Karnataka, the government recently appointed an official to keep track of children orphaned by the pandemic.

The outcome of the surge, the physician Dhruv Khullar wrote in The New Yorker this week, is “a medical and humanitarian crisis on a scale not yet seen during the pandemic.”

The disaster has raised questions in the United States — where a mass vaccination campaign has brought steep declines in Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths — about the country’s responsibility to help. Last week, after extensive pressure and criticism, the Biden administration agreed to send millions of surplus vaccine doses to India and other hard-hit, low-wealth countries. The U.S. also began to airlift medical supplies to India.

Then, on Thursday, after weeks of deliberation, the White House unexpectedly backed a call to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents. India had pushed for such a measure since last fall, and the move, supporters say, will allow more manufacturers to produce high-quality Covid-19 vaccines, expanding supply around the world. The move has been sharply criticized by the pharmaceutical industry, which says it could compromise vaccine quality. (The industry also stands to lose substantial profits from the loss of patent protections.)

The White House move will not bring immediate relief to India: The World Trade Organization is yet to finalize the policy and waive the patents. And, even then, manufacturing and distributing vaccines takes time.

Meanwhile, some other U.S. technology may only be complicating the situation. Even as many in India have turned to social media to seek help amid the crisis, misinformation about the virus has also spread quickly on the platforms during this latest surge. In particular, the pandemic has boosted the profile of Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury, a prominent peddler of quack cures in India who has turned his attention to disinformation about Covid-19. As Undark has reported, before the pandemic, Chowdhury grew his stature and reach through the use of American social media platforms — particularly Facebook and YouTube, where his videos denying the reality of AIDS and questioning basic medical science once attracted millions of views. In a 2018 interview, Chowdhury told Undark that newspapers and TV stations in India had refused to print his ideas. But YouTube, owned by Google, had no such reservations. “I prefer to go to YouTube,” he said. “I am happy.”

In May 2020, as YouTube cracked down on medical misinformation on its platforms, some of Chowdhury’s videos stayed up. (He has reportedly since been banned from that platform.) As the BBC reported this week, he remains active on WhatsApp — India’s most popular app, owned by Facebook — and has continued telling his followers that masks don’t work, vaccines are a hoax, and that Covid-19 is just like the flu, even as cases spiral across the country.

Also in the News:

• Children aged 12 to 15 may soon be able to get vaccinated for Covid-19 in the United States. During a conference call with investors on Tuesday, Pfizer’s Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said he expected a positive ruling from the Food and Drug Administration “shortly” on the authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, which received approval for emergency use in people aged 16 and up last December. According to NPR, the ruling could come as soon as early next week. Some experts have suggested that vaccinating children for Covid-19 is a vital step in curbing the pandemic — and that doing so will be necessary to reach herd immunity, in which a population has enough collective immunity to a disease to stop its spread. But, as Sara Talpos wrote for Undark last month, “not everyone is convinced that it’s necessary to vaccinate children to reach herd immunity.” (Whether or not herd immunity is a realistic goal for the U.S. remains contested.) Children are generally far less likely to suffer from severe Covid-19 compared to adults, and some ethicists also wonder whether this demographic should receive vaccinations while other higher-risk groups around the world are still waiting. (NPR)

• The U.K.-based biotechnology firm Oxitec released a group of genetically modified mosquitos in the Florida Keys this week, the first step in an experimental effort to reduce the population of disease-spreading insects. The trial — which is the first of its kind in the U.S. — will target Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can carry dengue, yellow fever, and other pathogens. By engineering males that, when they breed, pass down a gene that causes female offspring to die as larvae, the researchers hope to reduce the Aedes aegypti population over time, lowering the risk of disease in the area. Oxitec’s plans have been delayed for years, as the company faced regulatory hurdles while weathering concern and skepticism from local residents, as Taylor White reported for Undark last month. Many people in the Keys, distrustful of a new technology, are still opposed to the experiment, and some have expressed concerns about potential unintended impact on the ecosystem. As molecular biologist Natalie Kofler told Nature: “There are people who feel really strongly either for or against it.” (Nature)

• The European Union announced this week that it would begin a review of China’s Sinovac vaccine, raising the possibility of its eventual approval for use against Covid-19 in the 27-country bloc. Europe has been grappling with persistent vaccine shortages, made worse by concerns about blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, and Sinovac is the first Chinese-made vaccine to be considered by E.U. drug regulators. However, approval is not guaranteed. A recent World Health Organization review of the vaccine found that, while it seemed to show strong protection for people under 60 years old, protection appeared to be weaker in older age groups. The WHO also complained that gaps in data provided by the manufacturer made it difficult to assess risk. In particular, agency scientists cited a lack of data regarding risks to pregnant women, older adults, and people with underlying chronic diseases, as well as a dearth of information on rare adverse effects. The E.U.’s European Medicine Agency said it plans to evaluate data as it becomes available “to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks” of the vaccine. (Multiple Sources)

• And finally: In a network of caves a few miles inland from the beaches of southeast Kenya, researchers have discovered Africa’s oldest known burial site — a 78,000-year-old grave where a child, likely a two- to three-year-old boy, was ceremonially laid to rest. Researchers reported the finding in the journal Nature this week after years of careful work to recover and analyze the delicate, decayed remains. The team’s analysis suggests the boy — dubbed Mtoto, Swahili for “child” — had been carefully placed on his side and swathed, perhaps in animal skin or large leaves, as part of a community ritual. His head seemed to have been rested on a makeshift pillow. Still, Mtoto isn’t the oldest known human burial. Earlier grave sites have been discovered in Europe and the Middle East. In fact, scientists say they are puzzled that they haven’t found more human burial sites in Africa. One possible reason: Until recently, the continent has gotten relatively little attention from archaeologists. Excavation at the Kenyan site began just a decade ago, and researchers say it may yet yield more burials. (National Geographic)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Brooke Borel, Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.