The country has been witnessing a gradual increase in coronavirus infections in recent days. A new variant could be driving the rise but there's no need to panic, experts say.India has seen an increase in the number of daily new COVID-19 cases over the past few days, with virologists and epidemiologists saying that a new variant, XBB.1.16, could be the reason behind the surge.

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The South Asian country logged 1,573 fresh infections in the last 24 hours, while the number of active cases has increased to 10,981, according to Health Ministry data on Tuesday.

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That's up from the less than 100 new cases India reported on some days in January this year — which was the lowest rate since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020.

"New variants will keep coming as the virus keeps on mutating over time and the XBB 1.16 is the new strain. These are all from the omicron family, with higher infectivity and lower virulence," Srinath Reddy, former president of the Public Health Foundation of India, told DW.

Indian hospitals to hold anti-COVID drills

Following the surge in cases, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan held a meeting with officials from various states and reviewed the COVID preparedness.

State authorities have also been told to undertake mock drills at health facilities on April 10 and 11 to ensure operational readiness of medical infrastructure.

"The exercise is aimed at taking stock of the availability of medicines, hospital beds, medical equipment and medical oxygen," a senior health official told DW.

A similar exercise was held in December last year when there was a surge in COVID cases in countries such as China, Japan, Brazil and South Korea.

No need to panic?

Despite the rising cases, there is no need to panic, said Gautam Menon, dean of research at Ashoka University.

"The rise in infections has not resulted in a rise in serious cases. This is because the new variant is encountering a population that is already substantially protected against severe disease, through a prior infection or vaccination or, in most cases, both," Menon told DW.

"The symptoms and their relative mildness suggest that COVID-19 will likely stay with us for the foreseeable future, causing mild disease in a seasonal manner, much like the other human coronaviruses that cause about 30% of common colds," added Menon.

Vineeta Bal from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune pointed out that a discernible pattern is emerging where a more transmissible virus variant appears, displaces the dominant one, leads to an increase in cases and people gain immunity again. The cases then subside.

"A similar process is happening with XBB.1.16 as well," she said, adding: "The variant appears marginally more infectious, possibly leading to some increase in symptomatic COVID, though not overwhelmingly so."

"Immunity due to vaccination and earlier infections is likely to be waning in the community, and hence a recombinant variant such as XBB.1.16 is gaining some ground. I do not expect another major outbreak of serious illness and this increase in cases may subside in some time."

Expanding vaccination coverage

India, a country of 1.4 billion people, has administered more than 2.2 billion COVID vaccine doses.

But government data shows only about 30% of the eligible population has so far received a third or booster dose.

Authorities say they are trying to expand this coverage, especially among high-risk and vulnerable sections of society.

Giridhara Babu, an epidemiologist, said "proactive surveillance" is key to efforts to prevent another mass outbreak of coronavirus infections.

"Despite XBB.1.16 being potentially more contagious than other omicron variants, there is no evidence to suggest that it leads to higher disease severity or increased hospitalization and mortality rates," he stressed.

"With COVID now endemic, it is crucial to continue proactive surveillance efforts to guide the future course of action."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

(The above story first appeared on LatestLY on Mar 28, 2023 07:30 PM IST. For more news and updates on politics, world, sports, entertainment and lifestyle, log on to our website