The B.1.617 variant of COVID-19 that emerged in India is spreading to South Asia and beyond

As the COVID-19 variant that emerged in India last year spreads beyond its borders, the epicentre of the pandemic shifts from Latin America to South Asia and the wider region. And there is no sign of the infection abating even as the world faces an acute vaccine shortage.

Published : May 18, 2021 06:00 IST

Personnel of the Nepalese Army paying tribute to COVID-19 victims before cremating their bodies, near the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu on May 7.

Personnel of the Nepalese Army paying tribute to COVID-19 victims before cremating their bodies, near the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu on May 7.

With the World Health Organisation (WHO) flagging the higher infectiousness of the B.1.617 variant of COVID-19 found in India last year, South Asia and the wider region have emerged as the new epicentre of the pandemic. After India broke all existing records of infection rates, the virus has spread to neighbouring Nepal and, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Colombo banned visitors from India in early May. Pakistan is battling a third wave of infection and ordered a nine-day lockdown before the Eid festivities to prevent more infections.

Pakistan is deeply worried about the sharp spike in infection rates in India. Assad Umar, Pakistan’s Planning Minister, who is leading the government’s pandemic response, told the media that that the country was facing “a dangerous situation”. International flights have been drastically curtailed and the borders with Afghanistan and Iran sealed. Pakistan is not facing the kind of shortages in oxygen and hospital beds India is facing. The government in Islamabad had even offered to send emergency supplies of oxygen to the neighbouring Indian State of Punjab, but the Narendra Modi government had refused to give its assent.


In the first week of May, the Nepalese Health Ministry issued an SOS stating that the pandemic from India was sweeping across Nepal. “Since coronavirus cases have spiked beyond the capacity of the health system and the hospitals have run out of beds, the situation is unmanageable,” it said in a statement. By the second week of May, the country recorded its highest infection and casualty rates so far. To add to its problems, the government led by Prime Minister K.C. Sharma Oli lost a vote of confidence in the second week of May. Like its counterpart in India, the Nepalese government also refuses to acknowledge shortages of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. But compared with Nepal, India’s health infrastructure is more advanced. Mountaineers and trekkers coming back from the Himalaya have been told to bring their oxygen cylinders back to Kathmandu.

Nepal shares a long porous border with India. The cases in Nepal started steeply escalating after many parts of India imposed a lockdown, which forced Nepali migrant workers to return home. The vaccines that the Indian government had promised to dispatch have failed to materialise since April. China has met some of the shortfall and is expected to accelerate supplies to Nepal and other states in South Asia. After India stopped sending vaccines to South and South-East Asian nations, China pledged to meet the shortfall.

Also read: 'Variant tracking an essential part of long-term strategy'

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines thanked China, saying that he “owes a debt of gratitude” to the Chinese authorities for rushing in vaccines to his country. Countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, which were comparatively successful in combating the pandemic last year, are now witnessing an uptick in the infection rate. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, said that the virus remains at “an unacceptable high plateau” worldwide. He specifically mentioned the case of South-East Asia, where he said that “cases and deaths are rising rapidly”. Malaysia declared a national lockdown in the first week of May. “Globally, we are still in a perilous situation,” Tedros said in the middle of May.

Japan is scheduled to hold the Olympics this year but has not been able to get a grip on the pandemic. It has done better than many countries in the region but, all the same, has recorded more than half a million infections and a death toll nearing10,000 (official figures). Yet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga insists that the Olympics will take place this year despite public opinion in the country being against holding it. Polls show that 80 per cent of the Japanese public are opposed the Olympics taking place this year in their country.

Chinese vaccines

In what is being described as an important step in the fight against the pandemic, in the second week of May, the WHO gave approval for the emergency use worldwide of the vaccine made by the Chinese company Sinopharm. This means that the Chinese vaccine will now be part of the WHO’s COVAX programme, which is a key component of the organisation’s ambitious global initiative to provide free vaccines to the world’s poorest countries.

According to reports, the WHO is also on the verge of approving a second vaccine patented by another Chinese company, Sinovac, for the COVAX programme. Chinese vaccines have been distributed in more than 86 countries and are the most widely used vaccines in Africa and Latin America. A recent study carried out by the Indonesian government revealed that the Sinovac vaccine was successful in wiping out COVID-19 among the country’s health workers. Indonesia tracked 128,000 of its health workers from January to March this year and found that the Chinese vaccine had protected 98 per cent of them from death. President Joko Widodo of Indonesia was the first foreign head of state to receive the Chinese jab. He got his first shot in early January.

President Xi Jinping has pledged to use the Chinese-made vaccine to promote “global public good”. Chinese officials are cautiously optimistic about producing up to five billion doses of the vaccine by the end of this year though they are the first to admit that currently most of the world, including China, is in the grip of an acute vaccine shortage.

Also read: India's real COVID-19 death toll

The latest developments have the potential to give China the upper hand in global vaccine diplomacy. Even before the WHO’s approval for the Chinese vaccine, many European Union countries had opted for it. The head of Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccination said that the shortfall in vaccines in the country could be remedied by placing orders for the Chinese vaccine. For that matter, the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, has also made a significant impact. It is now being marketed in most parts of the world, with countries such as Argentina heavily dependent on it.

Latin America

Before the COVID-19 struck the Indian subcontinent in April this year, Latin America was the epicentre of the pandemic. Until the last week of April, the region accounted for 35 per cent of all pandemic deaths. Almost no country in the region has been spared. Brazil was the worst affected for a variety of reasons, the most important factor being the idiosyncratic management style of the country’s right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro. Even today, he remains a sceptic of the pandemic, comparing it to a “measly flu”. From the beginning, he was against the concept of national lockdowns and physical distancing. He played politics with the vaccine, trying to discriminate against the those produced by China and Russia. The U.S. wanted the Brazilian government to give priority to the vaccines produced by Western big pharma.

Brazil’s economy is in free fall as a result of Bolsonaro’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. In April, the country’s Supreme Court ordered the Brazilian Senate to order an enquiry into the federal government’s response to the pandemic. According to health experts, the total number of casualties in Brazil due to the pandemic is likely to exceed half a million by July this year. If the Senate commission comes to the conclusion that the President is guilty of wilful dereliction of duty, he can be impeached. As things stand today, it is unlikely that Bolsonaro will win a second term in office in the elections to be held next year. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Workers’ Party candidate, has already established a healthy lead in the opinion polls. Lula had served two successful terms as President.

Colombia, another country in the region with a right-wing government, is also reeling under the impact of the pandemic. The three largest cities in the country, Bogota (the capital), Medellin and Cali, have registered around 80,000 deaths due to COVID-19 so far. The government failed woefully on the health and economic fronts after the pandemic struck. And at the end of April when unemployment was rising, the government thought it opportune to raise taxes on basic commodities. Cities across the country have since exploded into protests. The police force, which is under the Ministry of Defence, used excessive force against demonstrators, which resulted in the deaths of at least 42 people by the second week of May. There are no signs of the violence abating any time soon. The days of the right-wing government in Bogota seem to be numbered.

Also read: India's all-round failure to contain the second wave

Peru, also a country under a right-wing government, became the first in Latin America to hit the milestone of recoding 100 deaths per 100,000 of the population. A third of the its population of 33 million was infected by last year itself. It is estimated that one-third of the population has COVID-19 antibodies. More populous counties in the region such as Mexico and Argentina are also in a bad way.

Cuba’s record

But there is also some good news. Cuba’s coronavirus infection rate is comparatively low by Latin American standards. It has developed two home-grown vaccines, becoming the first country in the region to do so. This is a creditable achievement for a country of 12 million people. The two vaccines patented by Cuban scientists are called Abdala and Sovereign 11. Gerardo Guillen, the Director of Biomedical Research at the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, who supervised the Abdala vaccine programme, said that Cuban vaccines had a well-earned reputation for being safe.

Cuba has not signed up for the WHO’s COVAX initiative and has instead decided to inoculate its people with its own vaccines. The socialist state will have the distinction of being the first country to vaccinate its population with domestically produced vaccines. Owing to the continuing U.S. blockade of the country, Cuba finds it difficult to access vaccines from the international market. Cuba has promised its vaccines to the wider region and beyond. The government has already signed agreements with the governments of Venezuela and Iran for the manufacture of the Sovereign 11 vaccine in those countries. South-South cooperation has always been a priority of the Cuban government.

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