Dr. Rajendra Kapila of Rutgers Dies in India Prompting COVID Conspiracies—What We Know

Dr. Rajendra Kapila, a distinguished infectious diseases expert who taught at New Jersey's Rutgers University, died with COVID-19 in India in April. As conspiracy theories surrounding the circumstances of Kapila's passing are spreading online, here is what we know and what is still unclear.

The Hindustan Times reported Kapila died in a New Delhi hospital on April 28 at age 81, after returning to India with his wife in late March. He was reportedly meant to fly back to the U.S. by the second week of April, but had tested positive for COVID-19 on April 8.

India is currently grappling with a spiralling surge in COVID-19 infections, a mounting crisis which the Associated Press reports has killed at least 220,000 people as of Tuesday.

Citing Kapila's wife, the Hindustan Times reported the professor had been fully inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine in the U.S.

According to ABC7—which interviewed his ex-wife—Kapila, who had diabetes and heart complications, traveled to India to help care for family.

Over the past week, rumors on Kapila's death were circulated by fringe websites, social media forums and internet users. Some claimed the Pfizer vaccine may not be effective against the B.1.617 variant, also known as India's "double-mutant" variant. It is unclear whether Kapila has contracted B.1.617. Others used Kapila's passing to cast aspersions on COVID-19 vaccines as a whole.

Some conspiracy posts even took aim at Kapila's memory. In an apparent attempt to denote irony, one Twitter user with more than 10,000 followers shared a video in which the professor criticized the anti-vaccine ideology during a presentation.

In a Tuesday report, fact-checking website Snopes said it could not independently verify whether Kapila was fully vaccinated to begin with, or whether he had contracted COVID-19 while caring for relatives in India.

Snopes said Rutgers New Jersey Medical School confirmed in an email that Kapila died this year, but did not provide any other details.

However, Tobias Hohl—chief of Infectious Diseases Service at New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center—tweeted an email he said was written by the chair of Rutgers' Department of Medicine, which appeared to confirm Kapila died of COVID-19.

Hohl quoted Dr. Marc Klapholz's email to New York's community of infectious disease specialists as saying: "[T]he #COVID19 pandemic has been so cruel. Raj was indefatigable, a true giant in clinical infectious diseases."

(8) many distinguished members this year - the #COVID19 pandemic has been so cruel. Raj was indefatigable, a true giant in clinical infectious diseases. #IDTwitter #TxID @IDSAInfo

— Tobias Hohl MD, PhD (@tmhohl71) May 4, 2021

Newsweek has contacted Rutgers University New Jersey Medical School and Kapila's relatives for more information.

Kapila was an award-winning professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, according to his biography on the department website. He has taught at the university since 1973 and chaired the Infection Control Committee.

Kapila worked as an attending physician and epidemiologist at Rutgers' University Hospital in Newark. During the Vietnam War, he served in the U.S. Army as Assistant Chief of Medicine.

On social media, colleagues remembered Kapila as a "giant" in the field of infectious diseases.

We have lost a giant in infectious disease, Dr Raj Kapila, who served for years as a leader in global infectious diseases at @Rutgers_NJMS. @RutgersBHS will be ever grateful for his contribution to global ID and remember his extraordinary diagnostic talent https://t.co/5lYzDjxt9h

— Nancy Connell (@ndconnell) April 29, 2021

Fellow Rutgers medical professor Nancy Connell hailed Kapila as a "leader in global infectious diseases" at the school, adding Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences will be "ever grateful for his contribution to global ID and remember his extraordinary diagnostic talent."

Robert A. Schwartz, head of dermatology at Rutgers, tweeted Kapila "will be remembered for his unmatched sagacity" and extended his condolences to the professor' family.

Condolences to the family of Rajendra Kapila, the @RutgersU professor, @CityofNewarkNJ physician, and @USArmy veteran who advocated for the finest healthcare attainable for all. He will be remembered for his unmatched sagacity and conduct exemplarily of the @AOA_society motto. pic.twitter.com/bSMi7ddAyZ

— Robert A. Schwartz (@Prof_Dr_RAS) May 2, 2021

Hohl remembered Kapila as a "an insightful, knowledgeable, and indefatigable presence at Intercity [Infectious Diseases] Rounds in New York."

In the email tweeted by Hohl, Klapholz said Kapila was a "foundational pillar" of the New Jersey Medical School and medical establishments he worked at.

"A genuine giant in the field of infectious diseases, Dr. Kapila was recognized world-wide and sought out for his legendary knowledge and extraordinary clinical acumen in diagnosing and treating the most complex infectious diseases," Klapholz wrote.

The email went on to say Kapila made "countless contributions" to the field, particularly with regards to HIV/AIDS, for which he made "some of the earliest observations."

"As a passionate and gifted educator, we were blessed by his constant presence and active participation in departmental and divisional clinical conferences for as far back as anyone can remember," Klapholz continued. "After all the discussion, it always came down to 'What does Raj think?'."

"He mentored many who have gone on to illustrious careers of their own in infectious diseases."

The graphic below, produced by research provider Statista, demonstrates the demand for oxygen in low and middle income countries to treat COVID-19.

Oxygen demand in low, middle income countries
STATISTA
India health worker prepares vaccine dose
A health worker prepares a dose to inoculate a woman with the Covaxin Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a school-turned-vaccination centre in New Delhi on May 5, 2021. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images