New Delhi (CNN)More than two thirds of India’s population may have Covid-19 antibodies, according to a new serological survey released Tuesday, providing yet more evidence the virus may have spread far more widely than official figures suggest.
About 67.6% of Indians surveyed above the age of 6 showed antibodies, according to the nationwide study, which was conducted between June and July by the government-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The survey covered 70 districts in 21 states, with 28,975 participants.Our immune systems develop antibodies either induced by vaccination, or in response to infection. The majority of survey participants, 62%, had not received a vaccine; about a quarter had gotten their first dose.The study marks a dramatic jump from just a few months ago — at the start of the year, less than one quarter of participants were showing antibodies, according to the last national serological survey. But in the months between the two surveys, India was devastated by a massive second wave, which overwhelmed the medical system and left people dying outside hospitals, waiting for oxygen or an open bed. The wave lasted from April through June, infecting millions and killing tens of thousands.Read MoreThe study’s findings, combined with a slow vaccination rollout, raise concerns about the possibility of a third wave of infections, according to ICMR Director General Balram Bhargava. “More than half of the children (6 to 17 years old) were sero-positive, and sero-prevalence was similar in rural and urban areas,” he said — but “states, districts and areas without antibodies run the risk of infection waves,” meaning about 400 million people will still be vulnerable if a third wave hits.JUST WATCHEDSteady flow of bodies come to makeshift crematorium as second wave ravages IndiaReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH
Steady flow of bodies come to makeshift crematorium as second wave ravages India 05:31Active immunity, meaning protection against a disease, is often measured by the presence of antibodies — proteins in the blood, made by the immune system to help fight infections, acquired either through prior infection or vaccination.Vaccinations have picked up in the past two months after the second wave began subsiding — but the country is still nowhere near its goals. So far, only 6.35% of India’s 1.38 billion population has been fully vaccinated, according to data from Johns Hopkins University (JHU).And the country is still recovering from the second wave. Though daily new infections and the active caseload have steadily dropped, government officials are now repeatedly warning the public against complacency.”I would like to emphasize today that at hill stations and in markets, the large crowds who are not wearing masks or following protocols is an issue of great concern,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week, after photos emerged of tourists flouting Covid protocols in vacation destination towns. “This is not right.”Underreported cases and deathsHealth workers and scientists have long warned that the real toll of cases and deaths are likely much higher than reported, pointing to the discrepancy between official figures and the sero-surveys.So far, India has reported about 31.2 million confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University — less than 3% of its total population, and drastically lower than the proportion of survey respondents showing antibodies.There are several reasons behind the gap in reporting, including poor infrastructure, human error, and low testing levels.Though testing rates have increased since the start of the year, there are different case reporting structures across different cities and states — and poorer residents might not be able to afford the time off work to get tested, or to travel to a test center.Underreporting is prevalent in more rural parts of the country, where there are often logistical issues like missing information in the national medical database. Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA young man receives a Covid-19 vaccine in Guwahati, India, on Saturday, May 8.Hide Caption 1 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisPolice in Shimla patrol the streets of the Lower Bazaar area during a curfew on May 8.Hide Caption 2 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisAn elderly woman wears an oxygen mask that was provided at a Sikh temple, also known as a gurdwara, in New Delhi.Hide Caption 3 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA medical worker observes patients inside a Covid-19 ward that was set up inside a sports stadium in New Delhi.Hide Caption 4 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA health worker administers a Covid-19 test on the outskirts of Amritsar on May 3. Police in rural areas launched a free cab service for villagers so they could get tested and vaccinated.Hide Caption 5 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisVolunteers stand next to burning pyres at a crematorium on the outskirts of Bengaluru on May 2.Hide Caption 6 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisOfficials in Chennai prepare to open postal ballots for state elections, which have taken place during this second wave of Covid-19.Hide Caption 7 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA worker at a mass crematorium carries logs of wood for funeral pyres as people perform the last rites for some Covid-19 victims in New Delhi on May 1.Hide Caption 8 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA woman hugs her son after arriving to receive free oxygen in New Delhi on May 1.Hide Caption 9 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA health worker administers a Covid-19 test in Siliguri on April 30.Hide Caption 10 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisFlower garlands, fruits and a pair of sandals were placed on a spot where a woman was cremated in New Delhi on April 30. Hide Caption 11 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisPolice personnel hold placards on their motorbikes during a Covid-19 awareness rally in Chennai on April 29.Hide Caption 12 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisPeople wear protective suits while watching a relative’s cremation in New Delhi on April 28. Their loved one died from Covid-19.Hide Caption 13 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisWorkers prepare beds for a Covid-19 isolation center that was set up inside a stadium in Srinagar on April 27. Hide Caption 14 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisMultiple funeral pyres burn in New Delhi on April 27.Hide Caption 15 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA health worker administers a Covid-19 test at a hospital in Noida on April 26.Hide Caption 16 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisUmar Farooq mourns at the grave of his mother, a Covid-19 victim, in Srinagar.Hide Caption 17 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisHealth workers turn away an ambulance at the main entrance of the Lok Nayayak Jaiprakash Hospital in New Delhi on April 25.Hide Caption 18 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA worker digs a grave for a Covid-19 victim in Guwahati on April 25. Hide Caption 19 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA relative of a Covid-19 victim is consoled by another during a cremation in Jammu on April 25.Hide Caption 20 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisPeople wait to refill their oxygen cylinders at a refilling station in Allahabad on April 24.Hide Caption 21 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA man inspects an intensive-care ward after a fire broke out at a Covid-19 hospital in Virar on April 23. At least 13 Covid-19 patients were killed in the fire.Hide Caption 22 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisThis aerial photo, taken with a drone, shows a mass cremation in New Delhi on April 22.Hide Caption 23 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisAmbulances carrying Covid-19 patients line up outside a government hospital in Ahmedabad on April 22.Hide Caption 24 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisPeople line up for vaccines at an indoor stadium in Guwahati on April 22.Hide Caption 25 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA relative of a Covid-19 victim breaks down during a cremation in New Delhi on April 20.Hide Caption 26 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisPolice officers patrol a deserted street in New Delhi on April 20. The capital city has been on lockdown because of Covid-19.Hide Caption 27 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisSigns inform people that a vaccination center in Mumbai was out of vaccines on April 20.Hide Caption 28 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisMigrant workers crowd the Kaushambi bus station on April 19. They were trying to return home after a lockdown order was announced in the capital.Hide Caption 29 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA woman waits to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in Mumbai on April 18.Hide Caption 30 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisRelatives of a Covid-19 victim mourn for their loved one outside a government hospital in Ahmedabad on April 17.Hide Caption 31 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisMigrant workers line up at a railway station to leave Mumbai ahead of a lockdown on April 14.Hide Caption 32 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisPeople gather at a Srinagar mosque on the first day of Ramadan on April 14.Hide Caption 33 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisA Hindu priest puts a face mask on an idol of the Goddess Ashapura during Navaratri celebrations in Beawar on April 13.Hide Caption 34 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisHindu holy men wade into the Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela religious festival on April 12. People also packed the streets of Haridwar for what is the largest religious pilgrimage on Earth, and the massive crowds created concern.Hide Caption 35 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisProtesters wearing protective suits lie on a street near the Election Commission office in Kolkata on April 7. They were calling for a stop to the ongoing state legislative election and its associated campaign rallies.Hide Caption 36 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisChildren wear face shields at a martial-arts class in Kolkata on April 5.Hide Caption 37 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisSupporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party wear masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election rally in Sonarpur on April 3.Hide Caption 38 of 39 Photos: India's Covid-19 crisisSocial distancing was not easy to achieve as people walked through a busy market in Old Delhi on March 27.Hide Caption 39 of 39A working paper published Tuesday by the US-based Center for Global Development found that the number of excess deaths reported during India’s pandemic could be up to ten times the official death toll — underlining just how severe the underreporting problem is.Between 3.4 and 4.9 million estimated excess deaths were reported in India between January 2020 and June 2021,said the paper — compared to the Indian health ministry’s reported death toll of approximately 400,000. When asked about the underreported deaths in parliament on Tuesday, Mansukh Madaviya, India’s newly-appointed health minister, said the government has “no reason to hide deaths.””Many people have said the Indian government is hiding the death toll, the Indian government simply compiles and publishes the figures sent to us from state governments,” he said.As Covid sweeps India, experts say cases and deaths are going unreportedThe study was based on three different estimates of excess deaths, using India’s seroprevalence studies, excess death data from India’s civil registration system, and mortality surveys from the Center for the Monitoring of the Indian Economy.Each of these estimates have their limitations, and the number of excess deaths reported do not necessarily equate to Covid-specific deaths, the study acknowledged. But it concluded that the first wave of the pandemic was “more lethal than is popularly believed,” and that their estimates show a higher number of excess deaths reported during the first wave than the second. “Regardless of source and estimate, actual deaths during the Covid pandemic are likely to have been an order of magnitude greater than the official count,” the study noted. “True deaths are likely to be in the several millions not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy since partition and independence.”
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