Stepping up its preparation to fight the threat of a potential coronavirus outbreak, the Indian government on Tuesday said that screening of passengers would be expanded to 20 airports along with adding new laboratories to test the virus.
So far 35,000 passengers have been screened in India. Minister of Health and Family Welfare Harsh Vardhan held a review meeting on Tuesday to take stock of the situation. The minister said that in the next one or two days, passenger screening would be expanded to 20 airports, from the current seven. At present, thermal screening of passengers coming from China is being done at the seven big airports, including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Kochi.
Vardhan said the government plans to test the virus at 10 laboratories across the country. At present, only the National Institute of Virology in Pune is conducting the tests; so far, about 20 samples have been sent to the Pune lab.
On Tuesday, the government activated four new laboratories — the Indian Council of Medical Research’s viral research and diagnostics lab network — at Alleppey, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Mumbai for testing samples.
Three suspected patients are under observation at Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.
Vardhan had written to all state chief ministers last week asking them to be alert. A 24x7 call centre has been made operational to monitor the list of contacts furnished by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and provide details of district and state surveillance officers to those who seek them. Also in case of any clinical query, it would direct the concerned to the relevant integrated disease surveillance programme officer.
On Tuesday, the minister also noted that there were around 500 Indians in China’s Wuhan, including students. The government is talking to its Chinese counterparts to bring them back as soon as possible. “Once they are brought back, they would be kept in isolation for two weeks,” he added.
An Air India official said, “We are on standby and awaiting instructions from the government. The MEA and the Indian Embassy in China are working with local authorities to secure permission.”
Meanwhile, ports, too, have stepped up vigil. Yashodhan Wanage, deputy chairman, Mumbai Port Trust, said that they have been asked (by the government) not to give shore permit to vessels coming from China. All vessels from Southeast Asia are being scanned and a health declaration has to be given by the captain of these vessels, detailing the nationality of the crew, health details of the members, including symptoms.
Gujarat’s Health Commissioner Jai Prakash Shivahare informed that wards at all medical colleges in the state have been isolated, even as rapid response teams are being deployed at key entry points, including airports. He added that not only response teams are being deployed (according to guidelines from the Centre), but Gujarat has started providing training via videoconference to district teams and medical colleges.
Kerala government on Monday said that around 288 people are under observation, of which seven has some symptoms of the coronavirus strain. However, test results were negative for presence of the virus for five of them, while the result for others are expected to come out, said State Health Minister K K Shailaja.
The government is continuously monitoring the situation across sectors, so that timely action can be taken to prevent a crisis in India. So far, no case of anyone testing positive for the latest strain of the coronavirus has been reported in India.
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi directed the government machineries to take up the issue in a comprehensive manner, resulting in the first big meeting last Saturday. At that meeting, chaired by P K Mishra, principal secretary to the PM, top bureaucrats from across the ministries, including health, civil aviation, home affairs, and external affairs, briefed Mishra on the preparedness and response measures taken so far.
Two days later, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba took a follow-up review meeting, while stepping up efforts. Plans to evacuate Indians in Wuhan — the centre of the virus outbreak in China — were also discussed. A decision was taken that the MEA would make a request to the Chinese authorities for possible evacuation.
Significantly, in the meeting chaired by Gauba on Monday, top representatives of the National Disaster Management Authority and Directorate General (Armed Forces Medical Service), too, were present, besides officials from the health, civil aviation, MEA, and defence, among others.
In response to the confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in Nepal, India has stepped up vigil at the border with Nepal. The health ministry is also on overdrive to screen people at the Nepal border across five states. Community-level monitoring of passengers has been advised through health staff.