Seemingly Mixed Messages About Indian COVID-19 Variant Given

Frank Diamond

Frank Diamond has been with Infection Control Today since November 2019. He has more than 30 years of experience working for magazines, newspapers, and television news.

The World Health Organization calls the B.1.617 a COVID-19 variant of global concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that it’s not that much of a concern in the United States for now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be making itself vulnerable to even more criticism than it’s already gotten from some medical experts due to its stance on the COVID-19 variant that’s devastating India at the moment. The World Health Organization calls the variant one of global concern, raising its official WHO status from a “variant of interest” to a “variant of concern.” The B.1.617 seems to be more transmittable because of two genetic mutations.

India has been in the midst of a brutal wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting on Monday 366,161 new infections, and 3,754 deaths. Since April 28, the country has seen roughly 3,000 people die due to the disease every day. But because of problems in recording infection and the fact that Indian hospitals and other medical facilities are swamped—and with medical supplies running low; oxygen among them—many medical experts say that the real numbers of infection and death in India could be much worse. What is being recorded is horrible enough. Officially, since April 28, the country has seen roughly 3,000 people die due to the disease every day. Only 10% of its population has received at least 1 dose of a vaccine, and only 2% have been fully inoculated against the virus.

For its part, the CDC “says it is monitoring the COVID-19 variant surging in India, but says it is not a variant of concern even though the [WHO] said the opposite Monday,” the Associated Press reports.

When it comes to how a variant is designated, location matters, the CDC said in an email to CNN. The CDC huddles with the SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group (SIG) (a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to determine just how to categorize a COVID-19 variant. In the email to CNN, the CDC said that “since the importance of variants may differ by location, CDC, in collaboration with the SIG, is closely monitoring the emergence of the B.1.617 variant in the United States. And this variant has been prioritized for characterization by the US government to better understand the potential impact on available medical countermeasures, including vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.”

As Infection Control Today® has been reporting, the CDC has been criticized for doling out information during the COVID-19 pandemic that has often been contradictory, when it’s not been out and out wrong. Last October in a Q&A, Kevin Kavanagh, MD, a member of ICT®’s Editorial Advisory Board, said that “there have been a number of statements from the CDC or at least with the CDC label on it, which have been disturbing.”

Not disturbing enough to shake the public’s trust in the CDC, according to the latest Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index, which shows that Americans are more optimistic that society will reopen entirely and we’ll get back to a pre-COVID-19 normal. About 70% of Americans told surveyors that they believe that they are receiving accurate information about COVID-19.

In addition, More than a third of Americans have been fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University. And while there’s still much to discover about the Indian variant, the vaccines appear to be effective to various degrees against all the COVID-19 variants that have surfaced so far.

Nonetheless, while the public might have faith in the CDC, health care experts such as Kavanagh express some exasperation with the speed at which the CDC reviews and disseminates information. The agency goes too slow, the experts say. For instance, it was just last week that the CDC said that COVID-19 can be spread through tiny particles in the air. That’s something other health experts have been saying for nearly a year.

That COVID-19 is primarily an airborne pathogen that doesn’t present that much risk on surfaces has also been explained by medical experts for more than a year, with the CDC only coming to that conclusion last month.

Experts interviewed for an article yesterday in STAT “say the agency has struggled to take advantage of the latest scientific findings to communicate as rapidly as possible with the American public. And when the guidance is issued, it tends to be overly cautious.”

Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy at George Washington University, tells STAT: “If their [the CDC’s] advice is too disconnected from reality, and if they are too slow, then they make themselves irrelevant. I understand that they’re in a difficult position. However caution and indecision also comes at a price.”