Indian army called in to assist as Covid cases hit new record

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Military aircraft have begun transporting doctors and oxygen as India set a new world record by overtaking its own daily virus tally of 330,000 cases for the second straight day Friday. Hospitals and cemeteries across the country were running out of space as sick people die without aid.

The Indian air force used large transport planes to move empty oxygen tanks for refilling as hospitals in several Indian states reported shortages.

It also rushed healthcare personnel from elsewhere to run a 500-bed hospital set up by the military in Delhi, the worst-hit state after Maharashtra.

"Air-lift of medical personnel, critical equipment and medicines is underway for Covid hospitals and facilities across the country," the air force said.

Military planes would ferry oxygen containers from “friendly nations” as well as 23 oxygen-making plants from Germany.

Oxygen jigsaw

The military was deployed after Indian courts this week told the government to “beg, borrow or steal” in order to supply oxygen to cities facing life-threatening scarcity.

On 12 April, India claimed enough oxygen to last 13 days but shortages began almost immediately as demand shot past 8,000 metric tonnes. The national daily production capacity sits at 7,127 tonnes.

“Even at full blast we would never catch up with this spiralling demand,” one official told RFI.

Indian states have accused each other of blocking critical supply. Twenty-four Covid patients died in a Maharashtra town after oxygen leaked in a hospital.

'Double mutant' strain

Scientists meanwhile said a potentially damaging local variant known as B.1.617 was under investigation.

It was first detected in October but local experts insisted it was not responsible for India’s current upsurge.

“The variant is found in just 10 percent of the cases in the country which have been genome sequenced at present,” said Rakesh Mishra director of a state-run center for cellular and molecular biology research said on TV. "But it is increasing its footprint day by day.”

Immunologist Vineeta Bal argued more scientific data was needed to nail it to the upsurge, which claimed 2,263 lives in the 24 hours to Friday.

It has also been detected in Belgium, Australia, Singapore and the US and prompted several countries to impose travel restrictions on India.