Iraq’s Interior Ministry said Sunday that 82 people died and 110 were injured in a catastrophic fire that broke out in the intensive care unit of a Baghdad hospital tending to severe coronavirus patients.
Negligence on the part of hospital authorities has been blamed for the Saturday night fire, which initial reports suggest was caused when an oxygen cylinder exploded in the ward of Ibn al-Khatib hospital. Iraq’s prime minister fired key hospital officials hours after the catastrophic incident.
Among the dead were at least 28 patients on ventilators battling severe symptoms of the virus, tweeted Ali al-Bayati, a spokesman of the country’s independent Human Rights Commission. The commission is a semi-official body.
Firefighters rushed to battle the flames that raged across the second floor of the hospital. Civil defense teams put out flames until the early hours of the morning.
Ambulances transported dozens of wounded. The Health Ministry said at least 200 people were rescued from the scene.
Doctors at the scene were frazzled by the chaos unfolding around them. They said numerous burned bodies were carried out by paramedics from the hospital floor.
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By midday Sunday, relatives were still searching anxiously for unaccounted for loved ones.
“Please, two of my relatives are missing. … I am going to die (without news about them),” posted a young woman on social media after a fruitless search for her family members. “I hope someone can help us find Sadi Abdul Kareem and Samir Abdul Kareem, they were in the ICU.”
The fire came as Iraq grapples with a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Daily virus cases now average around 8,000, the highest since Iraq began recording infection rates early last year. At least 15,200 people have died of coronavirus in Iraq among a total of at least 100,000 confirmed cases.
In response to the fire, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi fired the director-general of the Baghdad Health Department in the al-Rusafa area, where the hospital is located. He also fired the director of Ibh al-Khatib Hospital and its director of engineering and maintenance, according to a statement from the Health Ministry and his office.
After the fire first broke out, Al-Khadhimi held an emergency meeting at the headquarters of the Baghdad Operations Command, which coordinates Iraqi security forces, according to a statement on his Twitter account.
In the meeting he said the incident amounted to negligence.
“Negligence in such matters is not a mistake, but a crime for which all negligent parties must bear responsibility,” he said. He gave Iraqi authorities 24 hours to present the results of an investigation.
U.N. envoy to Iraq Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert expressed “shock and pain” over the incident in a statement and called for stronger protection measures in hospitals.
India is in the midst of a devastating second wave of COVID-19. For the past several weeks, cases and deaths have skyrocketed. The country is recording more than a quarter million cases per day.
The situation in India sounds remarkably similar to what has happened in Brazil, South Africa and now also Iran, says infectious disease scientist Kristian Andersen at Scripps Research Institute. “These countries already had a lot of people infected [in the first wave], and there was a sense that the country had reached some level of herd immunity,” he says. But then, over time, as people’s immunity waned, more contagious variants came along and sparked another surge.
“I think that’s what’s happening in India,” Andersen says.
One of the new variants circulating in India — and causing concern — is referred to as the “double mutant.” Here’s what we know about it, so far.
Why do people call this new variant the “double mutant?”
Officially, the variant is called B.1.617, but many people and media outlets (including NPR) have referred to the variant as the “double mutant.” That’s because B.1.617 has two key mutations that have cropped up in two other infamous strains
But scientifically, the term “double mutant” makes no sense, Andersen says. “‘SARS-CoV-2 mutates all the time. So there are many double mutants all over the place. The variant in India really shouldn’t be called that.”
Like the other variants of concern, B.1.617 contains not just two mutations, but more than a dozen.
That all said, there’s a reason why the term “double mutant” came about. First, B.1.617 has a mutation (labeled L452R) that’s also present in the dominant strain in California. Second, B.1.617 has a similar mutation (called E484Q) as the one present in the variants first detected in South Africa and Brazil (that mutation is called E484K).
So in a nutshell, B.1.617 has two “famous” mutations. But it also has about 11 other ones as well.
Is this variant “double concerning?” Is it more contagious?
Preliminary evidence suggests that B1.617 is more contagious than previous strains of the virus. A study published Tuesday found that the L452R mutation may enhance the ability of viruses to infect human cells in the laboratory. The variant in California, which carries this same mutation, is about 20 percent more transmissible than older strains of the virus.
B.1.617 is also spreading quickly in India. Over the past few months, it has become the dominant strain in the state of Maharashtra, Nature has reported.
But, Andersen says, no one knows for sure if B.1.617 is more transmissible and thus driving India’s surge. “We also know the B.1.1.7 [the variant first detected in the U.K.] is circulating in India, and we know that P.1. [the variant first detected in Brazil] is also circulating there, too. So they could also play a role in this surge. We simply don’t have the data yet.”
Will the vaccines still work against B.1.617?
Several studies have linked the two key mutations in B.1.617 with an increased ability for the virus to evade the immune system. So, most likely, COVD-19 vaccines will still work against B1.617, but they could be slightly less effective, Cambridge University’s Ravi Gupta said on Twitter: “Likely vaccines will protect against severe illness and death but not against infection in those [people] with poorer immune responses.”
There are also signs that people who have already had COVID-19 can be reinfected more easily with this strain, Gupta wrote, especially over time, as their natural immunity wanes. These reinfections may be driving this second, explosive surge in India.