More than 600 million Indians, over half of the country’s population, are likely to have been infected with coronavirus by February 2021, an expert panel advising the Indian government has predicted.
The estimate comes even as prime minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation on Tuesday, citing the country’s low fatality rate as evidence that “India is doing better than many other developed countries.”
India has recorded more than 7.5 million Covid-19 cases and over 115,000 deaths, second in the world only to the US on 8.06 million cases and more than 218,000 deaths.
But the latest mathematical model used by the Indian government’s expert panel on coronavirus suggests that in reality about 30 per cent of the country’s 1.3 billion people have antibodies – implying they have already been infected and recovered.
The figures are a projection based on officially declared coronavirus data, and validated by a series of sero-surveys conducted by health officials across the country since September.
“By February 2021, this [number of people who have been infected] could reach 50 per cent,” professor Manindra Agrawal, a member of the expert panel, told The Independent.
Experts are concerned that with the country now almost completely out of lockdown, the current festival season could lead to a spike in cases. The weeks ahead include several key dates in religious calendars in India, including the major Hindu celebrations of Diwali and Navratri.
Without directly criticising religious gatherings, in his address Mr Modi warned: “We are moving through a difficult time. A little carelessness can hamper our fight against coronavirus.
“We have come a long way in our fight against Covid-19. But the fight is not over… This is not the time to be careless.”
Professor Agrawal cited European countries as examples of where laxity in following precautions resulted in a spike in coronavirus cases.
“The worrying part is that if we go back to how we were living in January 2020 then the (official) number of Covid cases would rise to 25 million within a month from 7.5 million right now. The future is in our hands,” he said. Such a rapid increase would see health infrastructure “crumble”, Professor Agrawal warned.
Professor Agrawal said that at this stage no one can know for certain the availability or effectiveness of a vaccine. “Until such details are clear it doesn’t make sense for us to look at these factors,” he said.
India’s health ministry says that of its 7.59 million cases, about 6.7 million are people who have recovered from their Covid-19 infection, and the number of new daily infections has fallen in recent weeks after a peak of around 90,000 in September. On Tuesday, new infections fell below 50,000 for the first time in three months.