India health minister on the country’s efforts

From stepping up airport screenings to keeping tabs on thousands of individuals who returned from abroad, India is monitoring the new coronavirus outbreak at the highest level to prevent an epidemic, health minister Harsh Vardhan said Friday.

The fast-spreading virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan and belongs to a family of coronaviruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as the 2003 SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, outbreak. The new strain of virus, called COVID-19, has killed more than 1,300 people, mostly in China, and infected over 64,000 people worldwide.

India reported three confirmed cases in the state of Kerala, out of more than 1,700 people tested around the country as of Thursday, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research. That included 654 people evacuated from Wuhan, all of whom had tested negative.

“We started taking action on this in the middle of January, at least two weeks before the World Health Organization declared it as an emergency of international concern,” Vardhan told CNBC’s “Street Signs.”

Increased screening measures

Those measures include thermal screening for passengers coming from mainland China, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea at airports and seaports, taking down their detailed history and then sharing that information with state-level and district-level surveillance officers to keep tabs on them through an integrated disease surveillance program, the health minister explained. More than 2,000 flights have been screened, he said.

“We’ve got very good coordination with all our state governments. The whole issue is being monitored at the highest level in the country and also with the state governments,” Vardhan said.

He said some 15,000 people have been “kept under watch as a matter of abundant precaution,” and those showing early symptoms were being kept in isolation at hospitals.

India also set up 15 laboratories to test for the virus, and Vardhan said the country has the potential to build up to 50 labs if the need arises. New Delhi has also issued travel advisories, telling people to refrain from traveling to China. The minister also said existing visas — including already issued electronic visas — for foreign nationals traveling to India from China are no longer valid and that screenings were also being conducted at the border.

A view of the emergency ward of the Beleghata I.D. and B.G. Hospital where people have been wearing masks for safety from coronavirus on February 3, 2020 in Kolkata, India.

Samir Jana | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

“Every concerned ministry is actively involved in ensuring that we plug every possible loophole, which can allow the entry of the virus in a big way in the country,” Vardhan said. “We are sure that (if) we could handle Ebola in 2014, (if) we could handle other diseases, we can handle this coronavirus quite well.”

Local airlines, including national carrier Air India, have also temporarily canceled flights to China.

Infected individuals at sea

Two Indian nationals on board a cruise ship in Japan also contracted the pneumonia-like virus, the Indian embassy in Tokyo confirmed on Wednesday. Both of them worked as crew members aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that is currently quarantined off the coast of Yokohama and were receiving treatment in Japanese hospitals along with other infected individuals.

Six passengers and 132 crew members aboard the ship were Indian nationals and the embassy said it was working with local authorities over potentially early disembarkation for those who tested negative for the virus. Indian media reported some crew members had posted a video on social media requesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to bring them back.

Vardhan said that as soon as the quarantine period is over next week, India will work with Japan to make “adequate arrangements” to bring those people back to the country.

The cruise ship, operated by Carnival’s Princess Cruises and carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew, has been quarantined in Japan since early February after a previous guest tested positive for the disease six days after disembarking.

Economic impact on India

While the economic impact in China and others, at least for the current quarter, is expected to be significant, economists have said that India would be less affected.

ANZ economists said in a recent note that’s likely due to the relatively small percentage of Chinese tourist arrivals to the country as well as a small share of Indian exports that go to China.

“However, India’s imports from China are close to 14% and delays in shipments can have a bearing on economic activity in the former,” the economists said.

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