New Delhi, Dec 30 (PTI) Fourteen more people were found infected with the UK strain of the coronavirus on Wednesday in the country, with West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh reporting such cases for the first time, taking the total tally to 20 in two days.
A cautious government extended the temporary suspension of passenger flights between the UK and India for a week till January 7 and said the services would resume in a "strictly regulated" manner thereafter.
According to local authorities, a number of UK returnees in states like Maharashtra, Odisha, Karnataka and Punjab remained untraceable and efforts were on to contact them.
The Centre had last week directed that about 33,000 passengers who had arrived in India from November 25 to December 23 midnight, will be tracked and subjected to RT-PCR tests along with their contacts by states and Union Territories, and the positive samples will be sent for genome sequencing.
To detect cases of the new strain, the government has now directed genome sequencing of samples from all passengers who arrived in India from December 9 to 22 and tested positive for COVID-19 or were symptomatic as it ramped up the surveillance and containment strategy.
Experts have maintained that so far it has not been found that the new strain increases the severity of the disease, though it is considerably more transmissible.
At least six cases of the new strain were reported on Monday. Among the new cases, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh reported one and two respectively among the UK returnees, according to state authorities.
The Union Health Ministry said the mutated UK strain has so far been detected in eight samples at the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in Delhi.
Official sources said among the eight people was the woman who left Delhi and travelled to Andhra Pradesh last week by train. The remaining seven are in quarantine at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital (LNJP) in the national capital.
The ministry said that one case each was detected at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) in Delhi, the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG), Kalyani (near Kolkata), and the National Institute of Virology (NIV) Pune and seven were at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences Hospital (NIMHANS) Bengaluru.
Two cases have been detected at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, it said.
Uttar Pradesh Additional Chief Secretary Health Amit Mohan Prasad said that the two cases were found in Meerut and Gautam Buddh Nagar and samples of their contacts were also being taken.
Tests of those returning from the United Kingdom after December 9 are continuing and till now around 2,500 samples have been sent to the labs, he said, adding that so far 10 people have tested positive.
In West Bengal, a senior health official said that son of a senior official of the state Health Department, tested positive for the mutant coronavirus strain after returning from London 10 days ago.
"The youth is undergoing treatment at the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital's super-specialty section. He is under observation. We have advised all those who have come in contact with him to isolate themselves," the official told PTI.
Six others who had come in contact with the youth at the airport also underwent genetic analysis but tested negative for the new COVID strain, he said.
The youth, however, was not having "serious health issues" and was "quite okay" at the moment, the official said.
Cases of the UK strain have already been reported by Denmark, Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore.
More than 40 countries, including India, have banned travel to and from the UK, a move several scientists said was necessary in the wake of the rapid spread of the strain which was first detected in September in the UK.
On Wednesday, Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri Puri tweeted: "Decision has been taken to extend the temporary suspension of flights to & from the UK till 7 January 2021." "Thereafter strictly regulated resumption will take place for which details will be announced shortly," he said.
Indian authorities have stressed the need to remain vigilant, noting that though the cases have been declining in the country, they are on the rise globally and the new strain detected in the UK had spread to several countries.
Aviation regulator DGCA announced that the coronavirus-induced suspension of scheduled international passenger flights has been extended till January 31.
"However, international scheduled flights may be allowed on selected routes by the competent authority on a case-to-case basis," the Directorate General of Civil Aviation added.
Scheduled international passenger services have been suspended in India since March 23 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But special international flights have been operating under the Vande Bharat Mission since May and under bilateral "air bubble" arrangements with selected countries since July.
India has formed air bubble pacts with 24 countries including the US, the UK, the UAE, Kenya, Bhutan and France. Under an air bubble pact between two countries, special international flights can be operated by their airlines between their territories.
Indian student groups in the UK on Wednesday urged the government to consider emergency travel options in extremely exceptional cases during the current suspension of air travel.
The Indian High Commission in London said that it is on standby for any "emergency visa" requirements. However, organising flights during a travel ban will prove a challenge for anyone desperate to travel to India.
In India, a standard operating protocol for states and UTs to tackle the mutant variant of SARS-CoV-2 was issued on December 22.
The National Task Force has said that there is no need to change either the existing National Treatment Protocol or existing testing protocols due to the mutant variant.
The NTF recommended that in addition to the existing surveillance strategy, it is critical to conduct enhanced genomic surveillance.
Standard defence mechanisms such as masks, sanitisation and physical distancing will work to contain the new coronavirus strain, experts have said.
The government has also launched the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (INSACOG) comprising 10 lab.
A high-level Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee will guide the consortium, formed to ascertain the status of new variant of the virus, Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, said.
India's COVID-19 caseload rose to 1,02,44,852 with 20,549 new infections being reported in a day, while the number of people who have recuperated from the disease surged to 98.34 lakh pushing the national recovery rate to 95.99 percent, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Wednesday at 8 AM.
The death toll increased to 1,48,439 with 286 new fatalities.
Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa on Wednesday appealed to the UK returnees who are untraceable to get themselves tested.
A total of 2,500 people have come to the state from the the UK from November 25 to December 22 in two flights--Air India and British Airways.
Out of them, tests have been conducted on 1,903 passengers. Of these, 29 tested positive.
The state Health Department has approached the Home Department and the police for tracing returnees who have gone untraceable.
Pune Mayor Murlidhar Mohol said they have has sought the help of police to locate some of the UK returnees who were untraceable.
A list of over 540 people who returned to Pune district from the UK between November 25 and December 23, was received by the local administration.
"We have already tested 270 people. However, the whereabouts of some people are not known. We have already given a list of such people to police and sought their help to locate them," Mohol said on Tuesday.
Odisha government had earlier appealed to the UK returnees to come forward and cooperate with the administration in curbing the spread of coronavirus.
Director of Public Health Niranjan Mishra said on Tuesday that 119 returnees had been contacted, but 62 remained out of the reach.