NEW DELHI: Even as country’s top health research agency released a surveillance report with strong evidence of community transmission of COVID-19 in 36 districts of 15 states, the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry representative insisted that coronavirus has not reached that stage in the country yet.
The national surveillance network coordinated by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) found 40 patients admitted in government hospitals for severe acute respiratory illness positive for the novel coronavirus although they had no contact with a positive case or any history of international travel.
A total of 104 SARI patients—out of total 5,911 tested from 52 districts or 1.8 per cent of the SARI cases—had tested positive for COVID-19, said the report by several ICMR scientists including its chief Dr Balram Bhargava.
COVID-19 positivity among SARI patients increased from 0 per cent before March 14, to 2.6 per cent by April 2, 2020, it said.
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The districts with COVID-19 positive SARI patients should be considered as hotspots and prioritised for containment effort, the report suggested.
Lav Agarwal, joint secretary in the health ministry on Friday, during the daily briefing on the outbreak, however, said “we will be the first one to tell you when there is community transmission of the disease but that’s not the case now.”
On being asked a question related to the ICMR report, he said those cases implied that “contact tracing has not been done properly and those cases need further investigation.”
Infectious disease experts and virologists meanwhile criticised the government for “not being truthful to the citizens.”
'No epidemiologist can say that there is no community transmission now especially when there is no such strong evidence to suggest it,' said Dr T Sundararaman, community health expert and former director of the National Health Systems Resource Centre.
'And if someone maintains that it shows they have absolutely no understanding of epidemics and what disease transmission means.'
He added that it should not be seen as the “failure” of the government efforts if community transmission happens because that’s the natural progression of the outbreak.
“The fact is that COVID 19 cases can now spring up from any part beyond government’s anticipation and that’s what community transmission means,” he added.
Senior virologist and CEO of Wellcome Trust DBT India Alliance Dr Shahid Jameel said that such a denial on the part of the government did not speak well of its effort or seriousness to contain the outbreak.
“Any containment plan is built on trust and therefore mixed messaging and denial by the government must stop,” said Dr Jameel and added that as the ICMR report was based on the assessment of only 52 out of total over 700 districts, the government’s focus should not be limited to areas where SARI patients without any travel or contact history have been identified.
Some state Chief Ministers, too, meanwhile indicated spotting signs of community transmission. Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh, for instance, said on Friday that as most of the 27 positive cases reported on Thursday were cases of secondary transmission, the state may be reaching stage III of the outbreak.
Tamil Nadu CM E K Palaniswami on Thursday had said that as the state could reach community transmission stage, all steps were being taken to prevent it.
Meanwhile the World Health Organisation, reportedly following a nudge by the Indian government, put the country in the category of a cluster of cases after first putting it in community transmission stage in its situation report on COVID-19.