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Medical aid arrives in India, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise by hundreds of thousands a day

Vital medical supplies began to reach India on Tuesday as hospitals starved of oxygen supplies and beds turned away coronavirus patients, while a surge in infections pushed the death toll toward 200,000.

'For 7 days, most of us haven't slept,' health-care facility administrator says

Vital medical supplies began to reach India on Tuesday as hospitals starved of oxygen supplies and beds turned away coronavirus patients, while a surge in infections pushed the death toll toward 200,000.

Supplies from Britain, including 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators, arrived in the capital, New Delhi, though a spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain had no surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to spare.

France is this week sending eight large oxygen-generating plants, and Ireland, Germany and Australia are sending oxygen concentrators and ventilators, an Indian Foreign Ministry official said, underlining the crucial need for oxygen. The World Health Organization also said it was working to deliver 4,000 oxygen concentrators to India. The devices concentrate oxygen from ambient air. 

U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed the country's commitment to helping India, saying he was expecting to send vaccines there, while senior officials from his administration warned that the country was still at the "front end" of the crisis.

Even China, locked in a year-long military standoff with India on their disputed Himalayan border, said it was trying to get medical supplies to its neighbour.

"We will encourage and guide Chinese companies to actively co-operate with India ...," embassy spokesperson Wang Xiaojian said in a statement on its website.

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Canada pledges millions in aid

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau spoke with his Indian counterpart earlier Tuesday about how Canada can best help, including through the donation of extra medical supplies.

"We are also ready to provide $10 million — through the Canadian Red Cross — to the Indian Red Cross," Trudeau said. "This will support everything from ambulance services to buying more PPE locally."

India's first "Oxygen Express" train pulled into New Delhi early Tuesday, carrying about 70 tonnes of the life-saving gas from an eastern state, but the crisis has not abated in the city of 20 million at the epicentre of the latest wave of infections.

The shortage of oxygen is the main concern, said Dr K. Preetham, an administrator at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre.

Workers unload a medical oxygen tanker from the 'Oxygen Express' train at Delhi Cantt railway station in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

"For seven days, most of us haven't slept," he told Reuters. "Because of the scarcity, we are forced to put two patients on one cylinder."

India's 323,144 new cases over the past 24 hours stood below a worldwide peak of 352,991 hit on Monday, while 2,771 deaths took the toll to 197,894.

Fewer infections were largely due to a drop in testing, said health economist Rijo M John of the Indian Institute of Management in the southern state of Kerala.

"This should not be taken as an indication of falling cases, rather a matter of missing out on too many positive cases," he said on Twitter.

Vaccine shortages

With vaccine demand outstripping supply in the country of 1.3 billion people, two U.S. drugmakers have offered support.

Gilead Sciences said on Monday it would give India at least 450,000 vials of its antiviral drug remdesivir. Merck & Co. said on Tuesday it was partnering with five Indian generic drugmakers to expand production and access to its experimental COVID-19 drug molnupiravir.

India is also negotiating with the United States, which has said it will share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine with other countries. A senior official participating in the talks said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been assured of priority for India.

Supply uncertainty could force Maharashtra, India's hardest-hit state, to postpone inoculations for people aged between 18 and 45, a government official said.

Biden said he had spoken on Monday at length with Modi, including about when the United States would be able to ship vaccines to India, the world's second-most populous country, and said it was his clear intention to do so.

Biden also said the U.S. is sending "mechanical parts" that India needs to domestically produce COVID-19 vaccines.

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The U.S. State Department's co-ordinator for global COVID-19 response, Gayle Smith, warned that India's challenge will require a sustained effort: "We all need to understand that we are still at the front end of this. This hasn't peaked yet."

Delhi is in lockdown until May 3, a measure adopted by the southern state of Karnataka and the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, although some states had been set to lift curbs this week.

The uneven curbs, complicated by local elections and mass gatherings such as the months-long Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, could drive breakouts elsewhere.

About 20,000 devout Hindus gathered on the banks of the Ganges river in the northern city of Haridwar on the last auspicious day of the festival for a bath they believe will wash away their sins.

Tuesday's turnout was low, however, said Sanjay Gunjyal, a police official handling the arrangements, compared with the hundreds of thousands in previous weeks, as the crisis prompted many monk groups to limit participants to "symbolic" numbers.

India has turned to its armed forces for help fighting the crisis as new infections have topped 300,000 since April 21.

Modi has urged all citizens to get vaccinated amid the "storm" of infections.

In some of the worst-hit cities, bodies were being cremated in makeshift facilities in parks and parking lots, while television channels showed images of bodies crammed into an ambulance in the western city of Beed as transport ran short.

India has converted hotels and railway coaches into critical-care facilities, but experts warn the next crisis will be a shortage of health-care professionals.

"Unfortunately beds do not treat patients — doctors, nurses and paramedics do," said Dr. Devi Shetty, a cardiac surgeon and chair of the Narayana Health chain of hospitals.

The Indian Medical Association said private hospitals would have to shut in Surat, a centre of the diamond trade in the western state of Gujarat, if they did not get oxygen supplies soon.

"We fear a law-and-order situation might ensue," it added.

Companies ranging from conglomerates such as Tata Group and Reliance Industries Ltd. to Jindal Steel and Power have stepped forward to help supply medical oxygen.

India has an official tally of 17.64 million infections, but experts believe the real number runs much higher.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News

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