Why India's Outbreak Is a Threat to the World

The coronavirus wave in India, where countless pyres cloud the night sky, is more than just a humanitarian catastrophe: Experts say uncontrolled outbreaks like India’s also threaten to prolong the pandemic by allowing more dangerous virus variants to spread and possibly evade Vaccinations.

The United States will begin restricting travel from India later this week, but similar restrictions on air travel from China that President Trump imposed in the early days of the pandemic proved ineffective.

“We can ban any flights we want, but there is literally no way to keep these highly contagious varieties out of our country,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health.

As the coronavirus spreads among human hosts, it invariably mutates, creating opportunities for new variants that can be more transmissible or even deadly. A highly contagious variant known as B.1.1.7 knocked down the UK earlier this year and is already well entrenched in the US and Europe.

Recent estimates suggest that B.1.1.7 is about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the virus. Another worrying variant, P.1, is wreaking havoc across South America.

Over the weekend, India recorded 401,993 new cases in a single day, a world record, although experts say its real numbers are well above reports. Peru, Brazil, and other countries across South America are also experiencing devastating waves.

Virologists aren’t sure what is driving India’s second wave. Some have pointed to a native variant called B.1.617, but researchers outside India say the limited data suggests that B.1.1.7 could be to blame.

With 44 percent of adults receiving at least one dose, the United States has made great strides in vaccinating its citizens, although experts say the country is a long way from achieving what is known as herd immunity if the virus doesn’t get away easily can spread because it can. t find enough hosts. The hesitation of the vaccine remains a formidable threat to reaching that threshold.

However, vaccines are still difficult to come by in much of the world, especially in poorer countries. In India, less than 2 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. “If we are to leave this pandemic behind, we cannot let the virus run wild in other parts of the world,” said Dr. Yeh.

Initial evidence suggests that the vaccines are effective against the variants, but slightly less effective against some.

“For the moment the vaccines remain effective, but there is a trend towards less effectiveness,” said Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease doctor and epidemiologist at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

Vaccine manufacturers say they are ready to develop booster vaccines that would address particularly problematic variants, but such a solution would be of little help to poorer nations who are already struggling to get their existing vaccines. Experts say the best way to prevent dangerous variants from developing is to contain new infections and immunize most of humanity as soon as possible.

Dr. Michael Diamond, a viral immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said the longer the coronavirus circulates, the more time it has to mutate, which could eventually threaten vaccinated people. The only way to break the cycle is to make sure countries like India get enough vaccines.

“To stop this pandemic we have to vaccinate the whole world,” said Dr. Diamond. “There will always be new waves of infection if we don’t vaccinate worldwide.”