Amid rise in novel coronavirus cases, the government on Thursday asked people not to panic, saying no community transmission of the virus has been observed and there has only been cases of local transmission so far.
Asserting that the safety and welfare of its citizens abroad have always been a priority for India, the government said starting from Friday, three back-to-back evacuations will be made to bring back Indians from Iran.
With novel coronavirus being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), health ministry officials said even though the virus is difficult to isolate, scientists at the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, have been successful in finding about 11 isolates, but developing a vaccine will take at least one-and-a-half to two years.
The number of COVID-19 patients in India has risen to 74, which includes 16 Italians and one Canadian. The figure also includes three patients from Kerala who were discharged last month following recovery.
Lav Aggarwal, the Joint Secretary in the Union Health Ministry, said 1,500 people who came in contact with the 74 infected people were under rigorous observation while over 30,000 people across the country were under community surveillance.
"India presently has around 1 lakh testing kits. More testing kits have been ordered and they are in procurement," he said.
The remark that there has been only local transmission of the virus in the country, came days after the ministry, in an official statement, said that cases of community transmission of the virus have been observed.
About evacuation measures undertaken so far, Aggarwal said till now, India has evacuated 948 people from coronavirus-affected countries.
Of these, 900 were Indians and 48 belonged to different nationalities including from the Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, the USA, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru, he said.
A Civil Aviation Ministry official said starting from Friday, three back-to-back evacuations will be made to bring back Indians from Iran.
"The first evacuation from Iran will take place tomorrow and around 200 people are expected to reach Mumbai airport around 12.30 pm. The second evacuation will be on March 15 and the flight will arrive at Delhi airport.
"The third evacuation from Iran is likely to be on March 16 or 17," the official said, adding on Tuesday, 58 evacuees from Iran had arrived in India, which included 25 men, 31 women and two children all of whom are asymptomatic at present.
Moreover, 83 evacuees from Italy who arrived in India on Wednesday have been housed at the Manesar quarantine facility. All patients in hospitals are being treated and reported to be stable, officials said.
The health ministry said India has always prioritised the safety and welfare of its citizens abroad and mounted timely operations from February 1 to evacuate them from coronavirus-affected countries.
Aggarwal said the government has made 52 laboratories functional for testing samples while 57 labs have been designated for helping in sample collection to enhance diagnosis and detection capacity of the disease.
The focus is on preventive approach and adequate testing facilities have been made available, he said.
Raman R Gangakhedkar, the head of the Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases-I (ECD-I), division of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said scientists at the NIV in Pune have been successful in isolating the virus strain.
"Coronaviruses are difficult to isolate. But the efforts of the scientists of NIV Pune have been successful and about 11 isolates of coronavirus are available which is a prime requisite for doing any kind of research related to viruses. Even with expedited clinical trials and approvals, it will take around one-and-a-half-years to two years to develop a vaccine," he said.
Officials said that India's efforts to deal with coronavirus are in consonance with WHO and the focus is on preventive approach.
The government has stepped up vigil and following a strong contact tracing system to ensure anyone who has come in touch with the infected are not missed out. Till now, 11,14,025 people have been screened at 30 designated airports in India, they said.
Asked whether high temperature kills coronavirus, officials said there was no study or evidence till now to suggest that.
As the contagious disease with flu-like symptoms spread across the globe, the cabinet secretary on Wednesday said states and Union Territories should invoke provisions of section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, so that all advisories issued by the Union health ministry and state governments are enforceable.
India has suspended all visas, except for a few categories such as diplomatic and employment, till April 15 in a bid to contain the spread of respiratory virus, according to a revised travel advisory. The government also "strongly advised" Indians to avoid all non-essential travel abroad.
Visa-free travel facility granted to Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card holders is also kept in abeyance till April 15, according to the advisory issued on Wednesday.
It said, any foreign national who intends to travel to India for compelling reason may contact the nearest Indian Mission and that all incoming travellers, including Indian nationals, arriving from or having visited China, Italy, Iran, Republic of Korea, France, Spain and Germany after February 15 will be quarantined for a minimum 14 days.