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COVID is killing 120 people an hour in India, and it could stay "really grim" for months

Inside India's record COVID-19 death toll
An inside look at India's COVID-19 crisis as oxygen runs short 01:58

New Delhi — A month after the second wave of coronavirus infections started sweeping over India, the country is mired in grief, and it could be weeks, even months before the situation improves. On Tuesday, yet another grim milestone was crossed: 20 million cases of COVID-19 registered since the start of the pandemic. About seven million of those were confirmed over the last month alone.

Of the total 222,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths in the country, more than 57,000 have been recorded over the last month. That's about 80 deaths per hour, and as the government's toll only includes COVID deaths registered in hospitals, many believe the real toll is far higher. Even the official death rate has continued to climb. Over the last two weeks, the virus has claimed about 120 lives every hour, on average. 

"I have lost all hope," Lily Priyamvada Pant told CBS News at a crematorium in Delhi on Sunday. She had just watched her 40-year-old son's funeral pyre burn. Her whole family caught the virus, and her husband was still in an intensive care unit, unaware that his eldest son had succumbed to the disease.

People watch the cremation of people who died due to the COVID-19 at Sahudangi Crematorium, about 9 miles from Siliguri, India, on May 4, 2021. DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty

"Doctors told me if you tell him, he will not survive," she said. "He is the CEO of a company and director of many companies… but he could help with nothing."

The feeling of helplessness is familiar in India's cities now, and there's no sign yet that the dizzying infection rate is about start falling quickly. The sheer number of people suffering with the disease has crippled the country's health care system, even in its wealthiest mega-cities.

There were reports on Tuesday that dozens of U.S. Embassy staff in Delhi were among the latest confirmed infections, but an embassy spokesperson told CBS News that while the health and safety of staff and their families was "among the [State] Department's highest priorities," and that it would "take all necessary measures to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our employees, including offering vaccines," they could not confirm details due to privacy concerns.

Hospital beds, doctors and nurses, ventilators, oxygen and medicines have all been in short supply. Almost a month after CBS News first reported on those shortages — and despite government claims that there is no oxygen shortage, and the fact that tons of foreign medical aid has started to arrive — there has been no meaningful improvement in the supply of these necessities.

U.S. aid shipments arrive in India as country battles deadly second wave 10:24

But while people continue to die daily for a simple lack of oxygen, experts are increasingly worried about another shortage: vaccines. 

Invites, but no shots

The federal government officially opened up the vaccination program to all adults from May 1, but there aren't enough doses to put it into practice.

States including Maharashtra and Delhi had to completely defer the rollout of vaccines to younger adults as they simply didn't have enough of the drugs. Vaccination centers in India's financial capital of Mumbai were completely shuttered from Friday right through the weekend.

The younger people invited by the government to book their vaccinations from this month, between the ages of aged 18 and 45, have struggled to find available slots on the government's online registration platform. 

On Monday, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of the Serum Institute of India, which has been manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in India under the name Covishield, warned that the vaccine shortage would continue for months. He told the Financial Times that production would increase from the current 60-70 million doses per month to 100 million, but not until July.

That has exacerbated fear among health experts given the rate at which the virus is still infecting new victims, and claiming lives, across the country. Given that lockdowns and aggressive vaccination programs are the only methods that have proven to rein in infection rates around the world, some fear such a delay will lead to countless more deaths. 

"A really grim situation"

"We are in for a really grim situation for the next two to three months," epidemiologist and economist Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan told CBS News, noting the vaccine shortage. He voiced particular concern that the epidemic tearing through India's cities may not yet have really hit much of rural India. 

"With many parts of India still mingling freely without paying attention to COVID norms, we cannot bend the curve by focusing on places that have current increases in case," he warned, suggesting stricter measures were needed across the vast country.  

A family member comforts a woman breathing with the help of oxygen being provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along the roadside as the COVID-19 pandemic hits Ghaziabad, India, on May 4, 2021. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has also urged wider lockdowns and efforts to ramp-up vaccinations in India. 

"Right now, they should start getting as many people vaccinated as they possibly can, with both the vaccines that they develop themselves in India as well as supplies of vaccines that they may be able to procure from other suppliers, be that the United States, be that Russia... whatever country is willing, whenever companies are willing to supply vaccine," Fauci told the Press Trust of India on Monday.

Thus far India has only managed to give about 9.5% of its 1.35 billion people at least a first dose, according to government data. Only about 2% of the population have been fully vaccinated. 

Epidemiologists around the world have warned for months that leaving developing nations to contend with major outbreaks while the wealthiest nations forge ahead with vaccination programs could be short-sighted, giving the virus time and a multitude of human hosts in which to mutate. Some of these variants have already proven to be more infectious than the original strain of the coronavirus, and the concern is that one could evolve with significant resistance to the vaccines available.

"Nobody is safe until everybody is safe," Laxminarayan told CBS News last week. 

Vaccines coming, but not fast enough

India started receiving doses of Russia's Sputnik V over the weekend, but that vaccine is still awaiting government approval, and the rollout of the doses is at least a couple weeks away. On Monday, Pfizer said it was in discussions with the Indian government and seeking "expedited approval" of its vaccine, as India insists on small local trials for all foreign shots. 

India announced fast-track approvals for foreign vaccines last month and invited Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna to sell their vaccines to the country, but the other two U.S. pharmaceutical giants haven't yet applied.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced criticism for exporting and gifting millions of vaccine doses to other countries — "vaccine diplomacy" efforts made, many say, without ensuring that his government had secured enough doses for India's own population. 

Modi's government shipped out some 66 million doses to a long list of other countries, including almost 10.6 million that went as donations to low-income nations.  

Arranging the purchase, delivery and distribution of foreign-made vaccines could take months, and given the shortage of the two Indian-made vaccines currently being used in the country, India could continue to pay a heavy price for the delays for weeks to come. 

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