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India says COVID-19 virus variants not behind upsurge in cases in two states

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India said on Tuesday mutated versions of coronavirus were not responsible for an upsurge in cases in two states, a potential relief for a country where mask-wearing and social distancing have largely disappeared.

Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south account for 75 percent of India’s current active cases of about 147,000, and both states have seen a sudden rise in new infections in recent days, raising calls for a faster roll-out of vaccines.

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India has reported a total of more than 11 million cases -- the most in the world after the United States -- and about 156,000 deaths. Actual infections have inched closer to 300 million in the country of 1.35 billion people, according to a random study of antibodies done by the government.

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A top government health official confirmed the long-time presence of two mutants -- N440K and E484Q -- in those two states as well as elsewhere in the country and abroad. Authorities have also found the UK variant in 187 people in India, the South African one in six and one case of the Brazilian mutant.

“There is no reason today for us to believe, on the basis of scientific information, that these are responsible for the upsurge of the outbreak,” Vinod Kumar Paul, who heads a government committee on vaccines, told a news conference.

“We are constantly watching the behavior of mutations in our country.”

Though cases have come down sharply since a September peak, Paul said India was still vulnerable, especially given that even previously badly affected cities like Pune in Maharashtra were getting hit again. He urged people to wear masks and keep out of social events -- guidelines openly flouted by both federal and state ministers.

India has given nearly 12 million doses to its health and frontline workers since beginning the campaign in mid-January, a pace that will have to be increase sharply to meet the target of reaching 300 million people by August.

Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said India would very soon start immunizing people over 50 and those with medical conditions, with a greater involvement of private hospitals. Government hospitals are now running around 80 percent of vaccination sites.

The government has recently come under pressure to expand coverage at home given the world’s largest vaccine maker has exported COVID-19 shots to more than two dozen countries.

India is using a vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech and the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research, and another licensed from AstraZeneca and Oxford University. Other vaccines are in the queue, including Russia’s Sputnik V and products from Cadila Healthcare and Novavax.

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