Representational use only. Image Courtesy: The Indian Express

Experts Divided over Whether Bodies of COVID-19 Victims Dumped in Ganga Can Spread Coronavirus

The dumping of hundreds of abandoned corpses of suspected COVID-19 victims in the Ganga, Yamuna and their tributaries or sub-tributaries may not lead to transmission of the deadly virus. However, experts believe that such actions have certainly polluted key sources of drinking water for many villages and localities along the rivers and that it has adversely affected aquatic flora and fauna.

Experts claim that the surge in bacterial infections may be significant and witnessed in the coming days, especially during and after the rainy season when the decomposed corpses buried in the riverbed sand will resurface due to erosion of the sand.

“If the dumping of bodies is not strictly stopped, the possible outbreak of other infectious diseases cannot be ruled out. Since the river Ganges at present has a low flow of water, the floating decomposed bodies will lead to an increase in organic load in its water, which will impact aquatic life,” Dr B.D. Tripathi, chairman of Malviya Ganga Research Centre at Benaras Hindu University (BHU), told Newsclick. “The decomposed corpses carry several harmful bacteria and fungi. These tiny organisms can be transmitted to human beings through carnivorous fishes, which the river hosts,” he added.

After a large number of dead bodies were spotted floating downstream in the Ganga from Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh to Buxar in Bihar, state administrations swung into action and fished out the corpses. A few were cremated and the rest were buried in the sand on the riverbed. Several bodies were once again seen floating in the river in UP’s Unnao and Fatehpur districts, possibly because of sand erosion.

Asked if the dead bodies of suspected COVID-19 victims can further spread the disease and that if the virus could transmit through water, Dr Tripathi said the answer needed thorough research, which is not available yet. “It needs a great deal of research to conclude whether a dead body is infectious for COVID-19. So far, there is no evidence to show water transmits the virus. Air is the main route of its transmission. Respiratory droplets and aerosols in close contact can infect people,” he added, emphasising that the floating bodies will no doubt pollute the river, which may cause other health hazards.

Dr Arvind Mishra, ex-Assistant Director, Department of Fisheries, Uttar Pradesh, too ruled out the most-remote possibility of transmission through water, arguing that the bio-chemical process, which is required for the growth and multiplication of the virus, stops once an infected person dies. He added that there was no danger
of an outbreak of any zoonotic disease because carnivorous fishes were generally not eaten by people in the state.

“Rohu (Labeo Rohita), Catla or Katla (Labeo Catla) and other small types of fish are preferred by people of the region. These fishes feed mainly on zooplankton (small and immature animals), not the dead bodies. The carnivore catfishes in Himalayan rivers that feed on corpses are Goonch and Bagarius bagarius, but hunting of these is prohibited. “These monsters grow up to 125 kg and 70 kg respectively,” he explained.

But he is of the opinion that the dumping of bodies in such large numbers will certainly pollute the Ganga and make its “holy water” unfit for bathing and even drinking.

The discovery of the semi-decomposed and bloated bodies in Ganga is a “serious concern” and has “revealed the truth” of the COVID-19 devastation across rural India, said Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, head priest of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi, also a teacher at the Indian Institute of Technology-BHU.

“The floating bodies are indeed polluting the holy river and its aquatic life,” he told Newsclick, saying it would be another human tragedy if not checked in time. “The organic load on the river water seems to have increased to such an extent that it cannot be effectively treated,” he added and said, “its impact on human lives is
a topic of research before being commented upon.”

Dr Om Shankar, assistant professor at the Department of Cardiology, Institute of Medical Sciences, BHU, believes that the possibility of transmission of the disease from water to human beings cannot be completely ruled out.

“It’s already scientifically proven that the virus sustains on different surfaces for a different period of time. If the bodies are infected, they have the virus which is not going to die in water. It will impact the river’s flora and fauna without any doubt as it is also a proven fact that several animals have been infected by the virus,” he said.

“Forget about the spread of the virus through water,” he said, noting that the decomposition of the bodies in a river which is a source of drinking water for many is going to have a disastrous impact on human lives. “The contamination of the water will give rise to several bacterial and fungal infections in the coming days,” he said.

However, Satish Tare, professor at IIT-Kanpur, stressed that the dumping of bodies will not have a significant effect on transmission but accepted it would lead to the pollution of rivers.

“A lot of dilution takes place during the flow of water. Therefore, even if the dumped bodies belonged to COVID-19 victims, it would not transmit the virus. Normal treatment of the water would take care of it,” said Tare who teaches environmental engineering, water quality and wastewater treatment and is also associated with the National Mission for Clean Ganga.

Though the Centre has claimed that not much variation has been observed in the water quality of the Ganga due to dead body discharge, the government is reportedly mulling over roping in specialised institutes such as the National Chemical Laboratory and the National Institute of Virology, Pune, for testing the novel coronavirus in the water samples under the overall coordination of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

In a concerning development, the microbiology department of the Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences (SGPGI) collected sewage water samples from three places in Lucknow and found the presence of the novel coronavirus in one of the samples following RT-PCR testing.

However, the SGPGI has claimed that there is nothing to worry about as the water does not transmit the virus. “One contracts the virus only with the inhalation of respiratory droplets and aerosols. Sometimes, the virus goes down to the intestine and is discharged by the body through faeces. So, if the sewage is tested, it will give a positive result because of the presence of a fragment (Spike protein). But it is a dead virus and cannot be transmitted through water,” said SGPGI Director Dr RK Dhiman.

First published by Newsclick.