Centre reviews preparedness; paramilitary forces being readied for outbreak response

On a day India confirmed its first case of novel coronavirus, the government, already on high alert for the past few days, further ramped up measures to deal with the global outbreak.

On Thursday, Cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba chaired a meeting with top medical professionals and doctors of Central paramilitary forces such as the ITBP, BSF and CRPF, and medical specialists from Safdarjung hospital to develop a response system to deal with any medical emergency. The team of doctors from the Central armed police forces will be led by doctors from Safdarjung hospital who have been tasked to create the blueprint for an effective response system .

After the meeting, it has been decided that all those who have come from China after January 15, 2020, shall be tested as the virus has a longer incubation period (2-10 days, according to the WHO). The longer incubation period means symptoms will show up much later, even though the person maybe a carrier of the virus. Gauba also stressed upon the need for 14 days of home isolation for all those who have returned from China.

The government has asked the Central paramilitary forces to remain alert and prepare a team of doctors which will be kept ready to supervise any case that comes up in the country.

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Testing facilities have also been augmented; besides NIV, Pune and four other laboratories, six more labs will start functioning from Thursday. NIV, Bengaluru unit, Victoria Hospital Campus in KR Road, Bengaluru, AIIMS, New Delhi, NCDC, Delhi, Kasturba Hospital for Infectious Diseases, Mumbai, and the NIV’s Kerala unit have already been made functional as of Thursday. By Friday, six more labs, including the ICMR’s National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) in Kolkata, GMC, Secunderabad, KGMU, Lucknow, SMS, Jaipur, IGGMC, Nagpur and KIPMR, Chennai would also be made functional to test samples.

According to NIV, Pune, 49 samples have been tested, of which one has been tested positive. Scientists will now conduct a next generation sequencing test on the positive sample. “A next generation sequencing test is means a complete genomic (genetic material) sequencing test which is done to assess whether there is a change in the virus genome,” explained G. Arunkumar, director, Manipal Institute of Virology.

Quarantine facility planned

As preparations are on to bring 250 Indian students back from Wuhan, the government is mulling creating a facility on the outskirts of the national capital where affected persons can be quarantined and cases can be treated, THE WEEK has learnt. The facilities belonging to Union defence and labour ministries and the ITBP would be utilised for this, Union health secretary told THE WEEK. Government hospitals are also being asked to develop a strategy to assist affected persons, if any, in the coming days and months .

The ITBP has a strength of around 400 doctors. Sources from ITBP said the paramilitary force will lend its medical services out of this pool of doctors, and similar steps are being taken by other Central forces as well. Doctors from the Central Armed Police Forces are trained to tackle severe medical conditions in inhospitable terrains.

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Besides, panchayats are also being organised to make people more aware of the symptoms, precautions and measures taken by the state governments regarding prevention and management of novel coronavirus in villages bordering Nepal. States have also been advised to open control rooms, appoint a nodal officer and popularise the control room number.

MEA response

India is awaiting formal permission from China to bring Indian nationals from Hubei province back home. Indian embassy in Beijing has been in touch with over 600 Indians in Hubei province—which has been affected by the virus—to ascertain their willingness to return to India.

Those willing will be brought back in two flights. “We are awaiting for the necessary approval from the Chinese government. We hope that this will be granted soon,’’ said Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs at a weekly briefing.

The mission in Beijing is working round-the-clock on the ground to work out the necessarily logistics to bring Indians home. “Arrangements are being put into place for people to travel to the airport. We remain committed to the safety and well-being of our nationals abroad,’’ said Kumar.

The Indian embassy in Beijing will have to reach out individually to each national to check their willingness to come back. Denying that India has been extraditing Indians out of China, Kumar said: “You have to put structure in place. There is a process.”

While there are no official figures with the MEA of the number of Indians present in Hubei province as registration with the Embassy is voluntary, the number is estimated to be around 1,200, claimed Kumar. “We don’t know. We have contacted over 600,’’ he said.

A travel advisory by the ministry of health to refrain from traveling to China has been issued.

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