NEW DELHI: The recent surge in coronavirus cases in the country is being closely monitored and measures, including strict enforcement of COVID protocols and creating micro-containment zones, will be taken to keep a check the contagion, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Friday.
Vaccination drive is going on and its pace is increasing with each passing day.
Priority groups have been identified on the basis of recommendations of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC), he said.
"The focus is protecting those at highest risk of mortality and those involved in pandemic response. As of Friday, 5.31 crore doses have been administered. In January, 2.4 lakh doses were being administered daily, whereas in the last week of March it was 20 lakh.
Now, the government has expanded the coverage to citizens above 45 years.
"The pace of vaccination is going to increase. As for imposing restrictions, the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve and change each day. The silver lining here is that we are better prepared now to tackle any challenges that the pandemic throws our way," he said.
Steps, including include strict enforcement of COVID-19 protocols as well as creating micro-containment zones wherever needed will be used to keep a check on the rise in cases, he said at the 'India Economic Conclave' organised by Times Now.
Commenting on the COVID-19 trajectory in India and the recent surge in cases, Vardhan said concerted efforts of the Centre and the states and the country's investment in the 'test, track and treat' strategy have resulted in India recording one of the lowest cases and deaths per million population.
"We have amply demonstrated that our policy of test, track and treat effectively contains the transmission of the virus."
The health minister said a graded opening up of the economy and beginning commercial activities followed a sustained decline in COVID-19 epi-curve in the country.
"This was essential to negate the economic impact that COVID-19 has had globally, including India. Historically, the pandemics of the past have come in waves and COVID is no exception. This was amply witnessed when the second wave hit Europe and the Americas. It still eludes the scientific community why pandemics behave in this way," he said.
Vardhan said physical distancing is an established non-pharmaceutical intervention to suppress and contain the transmission of COVID-19.
"The modality for ensuring physical distancing measures has to be evidence-based. In this context, partial lockdowns, such as night curfews or weekend lockdowns, would not have much impact on the transmission cycle."
"As for the vaccine, there are still many critical unknowns, especially with regards to the impact on transmission and duration of protection these vaccines offer. Further, what is clear is it reduces the severity of the disease and hence impacts mortality."
The health minister said the vaccination drive is being conducted in accordance with emerging science-based data analysed through algorithms which suggest that if a majority of the population are immunised then it is possible to get control over the disease.
"This is like achieving herd immunity through vaccination," he said.
Six vaccines are at different stages of trial and will be granted permission as and when they complete all statutory requirements.
The Drugs Controller General of India is looking on this matter, Vardhan added.
He also said both Covaxin and Covishied are completely safe and immunogenic and as of now, there are no concerns about the safety of these vaccines being used in the country.
He said this at the India Economic Conclave while responding to the growing concerns surrounding Covishield after reports emerged of the vaccine causing blood clots.
Such cases are being examined by the respective governments of the countries where those have emerged.
In India, all cases of adverse events following immunisation (AEFI) are monitored through a well-structured and robust surveillance system, Vardhan said.
"The causality assessment of all serious and severe AEFIs is done by the designated AEFI committee to determine if the event is related to the vaccine or the vaccination process or otherwise.
Till date, according to current evidence, no significant adverse event following immunisation has been reported in India.
"Our national regulators have examined the efficacy and safety data from the clinical trials of Covishield and Covaxin. I would like to reiterate that both the vaccines being used in our country are completely safe and immunogenic. Presently, there are no concerns about the safety of the vaccines being used in India," he added.
On the vaccine-related side effects, Vardhan said of the total number of beneficiaries inoculated against COVID-19 in the country, the percentage of those who have reported serious AEFIs is 0.0002, "which is very less".
These "select few cases" do not call for generalisation and their cause and effect need to be established, he said, adding, "We are taking cognisance of all scientific evidence while undertaking the causality assessment of AEFIs."
The health minister asserted that the vaccines are effective against SARS-CoV-2 and its current variants and that the government is keeping a watch on the evolving scenario.
According to the available scientific evidence, the vaccination programme will be strengthened further, he said.
Responding to concerns regarding a low coverage of the eligible beneficiaries and vaccine hesitancy, Vardhan said the ongoing vaccination drive has a crucial role in the country's pandemic response by protecting those at the highest risk of mortality due to COVID-19.
The coverage of the second dose of the vaccines among healthcare workers is 76.88 per cent and among frontline workers, it is 71.94 per cent, which is adequate, he added.
"The remaining healthcare workers and frontline workers will eventually be getting vaccinated according to their schedule. Further, the time interval between the two doses of Covishield has been increased to four to eight weeks, which could give a false impression of a low second-dose coverage, which is not true."
"Vaccination of the priority age groups of above 60 years and above 45 years with specified comorbidities started from March 1 and their second dose will be due in April. This may again give a false impression of low second-dose coverage. The government is keeping a close watch on the number of beneficiaries being vaccinated each day and the number of people in the prioritized age groups vaccinated till date. We are also ensuring the supply of vaccines to the states in accordance with their per-day vaccination capacities," the minister said.
He highlighted that India's communication strategy is adequately prepared to sustain vaccine confidence and address any vaccine hesitancy among the population.
The same is being implemented across the states and Union territories.
The Communications National Media Rapid Response cell has been established at the health ministry for early identification of any misinformation or rumour and countering the same with correct information.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) for the public and healthcare and frontline workers have been framed and widely disseminated, experts have been identified for writing newspaper articles to build vaccine confidence.
Fact-checking videos by key experts have also been prepared and disseminated to provide correct and factual information to people, the minister said.
Reiterating the clarion call of the prime minister to make the vaccination drive a "jan andolan" (people's movement), he said, "The ongoing vaccination drive is being strengthened on a daily basis to increase the number of vaccines administered each day. All stakeholders are involved in the drive to make it a 'jan andolan."
The health minister further informed that around six vaccines are in different stages of trial and will be granted permission as and when they complete all the statutory requirements.
The Union Health Minister's statements came amid his ministry saying five states -- Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat -- have registered a sharp rise in daily COVID-19 cases, the Union Health Ministry said on Friday as India recorded 59,118 new infections, the highest single-day rise so far this year.
After touching its lowest mark in mid-February, India's active COVID-19 caseload is on a steady rise and has breached the 4-lakh mark again after around three-and-half months.
The lowest daily increase of 8,635 COVID-19 cases was reported on February 2 this year.
The active caseload was at its lowest at 1,35,926 on February 12.
As of date, there are 4.21 lakh active cases in the country, a net rise of 25,874 infections in a day.
"Three states -- Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab -- together account for 73.64 per cent of the total active cases in the country," the health ministry said.
As for daily COVID-19 cases, Maharashtra reported the highest 35,952 infections in a day, followed by 2,661 in Punjab and 2,523 in Karnataka.
According to the ministry, Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Gujarat collectively account for 80 per cent of the new COVID-19 cases.
Ten states -- Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Haryana and Rajasthan -- are displaying an upward trajectory in daily new cases, it highlighted India's cumulative recoveries stand at 1,12,64,637 with 32,987 people recuperating in a day.
Besides, 257 deaths were reported in a day.
Six states account for 78.6 per cent of the new deaths with Maharashtra reporting 111 fatalities and Punjab 43, the health ministry said.
Fourteen states and Union Territories have not reported any COVID-19 deaths in a day.
These are Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Odisha, Puducherry, Lakshadweep, Sikkim, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, Ladakh, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Arunachal Pradesh.
Meanwhile, over 5.5 crore vaccine doses have been administered through 9,01,887 sessions throughout the country according to a provisional report till 7 am on Friday.
These include 80,34,547 healthcare and 85,99,981 frontline workers who have received the first dose, 51,04,398 healthcare and 33,98,570 frontline workers who have been administered the second dose.
Also, 55,99,772 beneficiaries aged more than 45 years with specific comorbidities and 2,47,67,172 senior citizens have been given the first dose of vaccine.
On March 25, day 69 of the vaccination drive, more than 23 lakh vaccine doses were given, of which 21,54,934 beneficiaries were vaccinated across 40,595 sessions for 1st dose and 2,03,797 healthcare and frontline workers received the second dose of vaccine.
Ten states -- Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra -- account for nearly 70 per cent of the vaccine doses given in a day.