New Delhi: India on Thursday reported its first case of novel coronavirus, putting the focus on the extent of preparedness in the world’s second-most populous nation to deal with a virus that has wreaked havoc in neighbouring China and is spreading swiftly across the world.
An Indian student of Wuhan University in China tested positive in Kerala, the health ministry said. Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, is the epicentre of the outbreak. But the infection has spread to all 31 provinces of China, killing 170 people and infecting another 7,711. Across the world, it has been reported in 21 countries, including India.
The Indian case was announced as experts at the World Health Organization prepared to meet late on Thursday night (IST) to decide whether to declare the outbreak a global epidemic.
“The patient has tested positive for novel coronavirus and is in isolation in the hospital. The patient is stable and is being closely monitored," the Union health ministry said.
Kerala health minister K.K. Shailaja said the state government was prepared to deal with an outbreak. “A patient has been tested positive for coronavirus infection and is kept in isolation. There is no need for panic. We have briefed chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan about the situation. We are closely monitoring the situation. Our health network is capable of handling any emergency," she said.
Shailaja said the student is one of four people who are in isolation at the Thrissur General Hospital. “We are waiting for the test results of the other three. Six more people are in isolation wards in other hospitals. The student will soon be shifted to a medical college."
The Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Virology (ICMR-NIV), Pune has so far tested 49 samples. “The only positive sample so far belongs to a student from Kerala, who was studying in Wuhan, China. Now a next-gen sequencing test will be done on her sample and the final result will be declared by tomorrow evening. Per day a total of 9-10 samples are received at NIV for testing. All facilities and capacity are available for testing of samples at NIV and it takes a day to test a sample for coronavirus," said ICMR-NIV director Priya Abraham.
With the virus having entered India, monitoring and surveillance will have to be stepped up to prevent its further spread, public health experts said. “As there is no vaccine or drug available against the virus, the cases are managed according to their symptoms. N-CoV is fatal but exact fatality is not estimated and how the virus will behave in the new population is also not known. Therefore, prevention and strict surveillance is very important in India," said Jugal Kishore, director professor and head of department-community medicine at Vardhman Mahavir Medical College and Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi.
“When we talk about India, the cities here are overpopulated and the poor living conditions, inadequate amenities, poor waste management, unhygienic habits and practices, and the degraded sewerage system help spread viruses here with tremendous rapidity," said Arup Mitra, professor -health policy research unit at the Institute of Economic Growth. “On the whole, the environment under which the virus grows has become dominant. At the same time, the possibilities of close contacts have become stronger due to concentration of people."
Stepping up its preparedness, the central government said that isolation wards have been readied in hospitals across all states and Union territories (UTs) to face any contingency. Personal protection equipment and masks are available in adequate quantities in all the states and UTs. Health authorities continued to screen all passengers coming from China and Hong Kong at over 21 airports. The government said it is procuring more of the thermal screening sensors that are operational in airports. Immigration and other staff members at airports have been sensitized and ambulances are on standby. Medical and para-medical staff are being deployed in shifts for round-the-clock service.
According to government officials, there are 1,200 Indians in Hubei, but it is not clear if all of them are still there.
“We have made a formal request to the government of China for bringing back Indian nationals from the Hubei province on two flights. We hope this will be granted soon," said Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson for the ministry of external affairs.
Elizabeth Roche contributed to this story.