Authorities in India said Tuesday they have yet to determine the cause of death of dozens of people found dead in the Ganges River.
Officials in Bihar state said 71 bodies were recovered Monday, while officials in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh said around 100 bodies were found, some on Tuesday.
Images of the bodies floating in the river sparked anger and speculation they died from COVID-19, which is surging throughout the South Asian country at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world.
Some medical experts voiced concern that the coronavirus can be spread through contaminated water.
“Although there is no global research on how the virus may spread through dead bodies in water bodies, I strongly believe that the water is now polluted,” said Dr. Mohsin Wali. “It is not worth drinking anymore and when these bodies rot, it will be even more dangerous.”
Authorities performed autopsies but could not confirm the cause of death because the bodies had decomposed.
India had nearly 330,000 new coronavirus cases and 3,867 related deaths on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. India has the second highest number of confirmed cases worldwide with nearly 23 million and the third highest death toll with nearly 250,000, although experts say the actual figures are almost certainly much higher.
The surge has prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to travel to Britain for the Group of Seven summit next month, the Indian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
Modi has been criticized for allowing massive gatherings at a religious festival and holding huge election rallies over the past two months even as infections sharply increased.
On Monday, the World Health Organization said a variant of the coronavirus circulating in India is of global concern.
"We classify it as a variant of concern at a global level," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told a briefing on the B.1.617 variant. "There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility."
The Philippines announced Tuesday that it had detected its first two cases of the Indian B.1.617 variant. The variant was discovered in two travelers who returned to the Philippines in April from Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
In other developments, U.S. regulators have authorized the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech to be used by children as young as 12 years of age, widening the pool of those eligible to get inoculated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Monday the shot is safe and effective for children ages 12 to 15. The vaccine is already available under an emergency use authorization to those 16 and older.
The Pfizer vaccine is the first in the United States to be approved for younger people. The approval comes as U.S. officials are seeking to inoculate a larger percentage of the population and will likely prompt millions of U.S. middle and high school students to try to be vaccinated before they head back to class in the fall.
While most children with COVID-19 only develop mild symptoms or have no symptoms at all, they are still able to pass along the virus to others.
In a related development on the vaccine front, introduction of another potential COVID-19 vaccine will be delayed until later this year. U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Novavax announced Monday it will not seek regulatory approval of its experimental vaccine until this July, citing problems in securing the raw materials and equipment needed to manufacture the vaccine.
But Novavax Chief Executive Stanley Erck told reporters on a conference call that the company expects to meet its goal of producing 150 million doses per month by the fourth quarter of this year.
Company officials said it expects to release the results of a late-stage clinical trial in North America sometime this month. A clinical trial conducted in Britain showed the vaccine is about 95-percent effective against the coronavirus.
Novavax has promised to supply more than 1 billion doses of the vaccine to the COVAX global vaccine sharing initiative for poor and middle-income nations, as well as 200 million shots to several European countries.