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Situation in India ‘beyond heartbreaking,’ head of WHO says as countries pledge help

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The WHO has redeployed 2,600 staff members from other programs in India to help support the effort to fight the surging cases of COVID-19.

The situation in India, where COVID-19 cases have surged, is "beyond heartbreaking," and the World Health Organization is sending extra staff and supplies there to help fight the pandemic, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.

"WHO is doing everything we can, providing critical equipment and supplies, including thousands of oxygen concentrators, prefabricated mobile field hospitals and laboratory supplies," Tedros told a briefing.

The WHO has redeployed 2,600 staff members from other programs in India to help support the effort to fight the disease, he said, citing figures provided last Friday.

India ordered its armed forces on Monday to help tackle surging new coronavirus infections that are overwhelming hospitals, as countries including Britain, Germany and the United States pledged to send urgent medical aid.

"The exponential growth that we have seen in case numbers is really, truly astonishing," Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told the news conference.

A woman is consoled by her relative outside a COVID-19 hospital after the death of her husband from COVID-19 in Ahmedabad, India, April 26, 2021. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

Daily cases hit another record

"We have seen similar trajectories of increases in transmission in a number of countries. It has not been at the same scale and it has not had the same level of impact of burden on the healthcare system that we have seen in India," she said.

India's new coronavirus infections hit a record peak for a fifth day on Monday.

Infections in the last 24 hours rose to 352,991, with overcrowded hospitals in Delhi and elsewhere turning away patients after running out of supplies of medical oxygen and beds.

A stark symbol of the crisis are the overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums, stacked to the brim with the dead. Deaths rose by 2,812 in the past 24 hours, bringing total fatalities to 195,123, the Health Ministry said — though the number is believed to be a vast undercount.

Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, said it would be impossible for the country to keep up with needs over the coming days as things stand. "The situation in India is tragic and likely to get worse for some weeks to months," he said, noting that a "concerted, global effort to help India at this time of crisis" is desperately needed.

The White House said the U.S. is "working around the clock" to deploy testing kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment, and it would seek to provide oxygen supplies as well. It said it would also make available sources of raw material urgently needed to manufacture Covishield, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India.

"Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need," President Joe Biden said in a tweet.

India will receive a first batch of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19 on May 1, the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, Kirill Dmitriev, told CNN Monday, according to the Interfax new agency.

California-based Gilead Sciences said it will give India at least 450,000 vials of its COVID-19 drug remdesivir and donate active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) to boost production, as the country reels from surging COVID-19 cases.

Gilead said all seven Indian companies licensed to produce remdesivir are scaling up their batch sizes as well as adding new manufacturing facilities and local contract manufacturers.

Remdesivir is approved in India for restricted emergency use to treat suspected or lab-confirmed COVID-19 in adults and children hospitalized with severe disease.

"Our immediate focus is to help address the needs of patients in India who may benefit from remdesivir as quickly as we can by working together with the government, health authorities and our voluntary licensees," said Johanna Mercier, Chief Commercial Officer.

Russian pharmaceutical firm Pharmasyntez also said Monday that it was ready to ship up to one million packs of remdesivir to India by the end of May, once it has received the approval of Russia's government.

With files from The Associated Press

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