India's coronavirus death toll passed 200,000 on Wednesday, with more than 3,000 fatalities reported in just 24 hours, as the World Health Organization warned that a variant of Covid-19 feared to be contributing to a surge in coronavirus cases in India has been found in over a dozen countries.
A total of 201,187 people have now died, 3,293 of them in the past day, according to health ministry data, although many experts suspect that the true toll is higher.
India has now reported 18 million infections, an increase of 360,000 in 24 hours, which is a new world record. This month alone the country has added almost six million new cases.
The explosion in cases, blamed in part on a new virus variant as well as mass political and religious events, has overwhelmed hospitals with dire shortages of beds, drugs and oxygen.
The crisis is particularly severe in New Delhi, with people dying outside packed hospitals where three people are often forced to share beds. Clinics have been running out of oxygen.
India has so far administered 150 million vaccine shots and from Saturday the programme will be expanded to include all adults, meaning 600 million more people will be eligible.
However, many states are warning that they have insufficient vaccine stocks and experts are calling on the government to prioritise vulnerable groups and badly hit areas.
India variant found in 'at least 17 countries'
The worsening health crisis came as the World Health Organization warned on Tuesday that the new Covid-19 variant, identified as B.1.617, had been detected in over 1,200 sequences uploaded to the GISAID open-access database "from at least 17 countries".
"Most sequences were uploaded from India, the United Kingdom, USA and Singapore," the WHO said in its weekly epidemiological update on the pandemic on Tuesday.
The WHO recently listed B.1.617 -- which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics -- as a "variant of interest".
But so far it has stopped short of declaring it a "variant of concern".
That label would indicate that it is more dangerous than the original version of the virus by for instance being more transmissible, deadly or able to dodge vaccine protections.
Call for more research
The WHO acknowledged that its preliminary modelling based on sequences submitted to GISAID indicates "that B.1.617 has a higher growth rate than other circulating variants in India, suggesting potential increased transmissibility".
It stressed that other variants circulating at the same time were also showing increased transmissibility, and that the combination "may be playing a role in the current resurgence in this country."
"Indeed, studies have highlighted that the spread of the second wave has been much faster than the first," the WHO said.
It highlighted though that "other drivers" could be contributing to the surge, including lax adherence to public health measures as well as mass gatherings.
"Further investigation is needed to understand the relative contribution of these factors," it said.
The UN agency also stressed that "further robust studies" into the characteristics of B.1.617 and other variants, including impacts on transmissibility, severity and the risk of reinfection, were "urgently needed".