India's surging Covid-19 cases raise fears that third wave may have begun

Officials in New Delhi say Omicron variant accounts for more than half of new cases, as infection numbers reach a seven-month high

A workers installs beds at a makeshift Covid-19 care centre being set up in Mumbai, as infection rates surge in India. AP Photo

A third wave of coronavirus infections may have already begun in some Indian cities, health experts said on Friday, as the country's daily infection rate more than doubled in less than a week.

The head of the government’s task force warned on Thursday that the pandemic situation was changing with the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant and “cannot be taken for granted".

“The severity issues are still unsettled; the World Health Organisation ... says severity is, hopefully, mild,” Dr V K Paul said.

“But it cannot be taken for granted because it is still a work in progress.”

Dr Paul said earlier in December that a third wave of infections in India could lead to 1.4 million new cases a day.

India reported more than 16,700 cases on Friday, compared with slightly over 6,300 on Monday, including 309 caused by Omicron – the biggest single-day jump in infections by the new variant.

A total of 1,270 Omicron infections have been confirmed since the first case was detected on December 2.

There have been no fatalities arising from the new variant, although officials in Maharashtra state – which has reported 450 Omicron cases – said a man of 52 who died of cardiac arrest at a hospital on December 28 was later confirmed to have been infected with Omicron.

However, they said his death was due to “non-Covid reasons”.

Maharashtra recorded 5,368 cases on Thursday – including 3,555 in Mumbai, the densely populated state capital. Nearly 150 of the Omicron cases in Mumbai have no travel history.

The western state was one the worst-affected regions during India's second wave which peaked in April and May. Maharashtra accounts for 6.6 million cases out of nearly 35 million recorded in the country, and almost 142,00 out of about 481,00 deaths.

Daily cases also witnessed a surge in New Delhi, the national capital, where officials say more than half of new cases are caused by Omicron.

Delhi reported more than 1,300 new cases on Thursday – four times more than the number recorded on Monday and the highest daily tally in seven months.

“Looking at the jump in coronavirus cases in Delhi and Mumbai, it would be reasonable to say that the third wave has at least started in the clusters in Delhi and Mumbai,” said Dr Rahul Pandit, director of critical care at Fortis Hospital in Mumbai.

Paul Kattuman, a professor at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge in the UK, who predicted India’s devastating second wave, said the country will probably experience an intense but short-lived increase in Covid-19 cases driven by Omicron.

“It is likely that India will see a period of explosive growth in daily cases and that the intense growth phase will be relatively short,” he said.

India's federal government and regional authorities recently announced new measures to contain the pandemic, including vaccination of teenagers and a third dose for frontline workers and the vulnerable population from January.

The Delhi government has ordered schools, colleges and gyms to close and markets and public transport to operate at 50 per cent capacity. The eastern city of Kolkata has banned flights from the UK from January 3.

There are fears that large campaign rallies in five states that will hold elections in early 2022 could turn into super spreader events, prompting calls for the polls to be postponed.

But India’s election commission on Thursday said the elections would be held on schedule and that it did not have the power to ban election rallies.

Updated: December 31st 2021, 12:49 PM