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The timing: Case uptick, waning vaccine effect, Omicron fears

Latest data shows that reproduction number R, a measure of how fast the disease is spreading, has crossed the value of 1 in several states, the threshold after which cases begin to rise rapidly.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Pune |
Updated: December 26, 2021 5:27:41 pm
Thousands gathered at the a stadium in Lucknow on Saturday to attend a government programme. Covid-19 cases have started rising in most states as the Centre has urged people to wear masks and follow Covid-19 norms. (Photo: AP)

The keenly awaited decision to provide additional doses of vaccine has come when the Covid case count, after a five-month decline, has begun to move up in some states, apparently fueled by the Omicron variant.

Latest data shows that reproduction number R, a measure of how fast the disease is spreading, has crossed the value of 1 in several states, the threshold after which cases begin to rise rapidly.

The decision was due in any case, even if there was no threat from Omicron. In the United States and Europe, booster doses started well before the emergence of Omicron, once the bulk of the eligible adult population had been fully vaccinated.

India now is at a similar stage, with over 60 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated and over 90 per cent of it having got at least one dose.

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There is growing evidence to show that immunity generated by vaccines reduces significantly after eight to nine months, necessitating a fresh round of vaccination to prevent severe diseases and deaths. So those who received their second doses before April, mostly healthcare workers and the elderly, could, therefore, benefit with booster doses.

The Omicron threat isn’t out of the calculus either.

For about a week now, some states are showing signs of Covid resurgence, mainly Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka. Major cities like Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Pune are also showing a similar trend.

Latest data by a team of researchers at Chennai’s Institute of Mathematical Sciences shows that the R-value, an estimate of the average number of people the infection is being passed on by an already infected person, was now over 1 in Maharashtra.

Delhi crossed 1 a few days ago and is now joined by Bengaluru and Kolkata as well, according to Sitabhra Sinha, the lead researcher.

For India as a whole, the R value is still less than 1, but it’s showing signs of inching up. A surge is not being ruled out. That would hardly be surprising considering that over 600 Omicron infections have been confirmed in the country.

In view of the fact that only a fraction of the positive cases are being confirmed as Omicron infections because of the need for genome sequencing results, the actual spread of the Omicron variant in the population could be several times higher.

And as is evident from countries like the US, UK and several others in Europe, the Omicron variant spreads at a much faster rate, infecting even the previously infected, fully vaccinated, or children.

For the last four days now, the UK has been reporting a record number of new cases – with 1.7 lakh cases detected Saturday. Before the current surge, the daily case count had never even come close to 1 lakh.

Several other countries in the region, including Spain and France, have been detecting a record high case count.

Though the Omicron variant, till now, has been found to be relatively milder than the Delta in causing severe diseases, the large number of infections has the potential to overwhelm hospitals and medical facilities, a situation already being faced by the UK.

In the worst case scenario, India could witness a similar surge by the middle or end of January. Additional doses of vaccines can do little to prevent this surge if it happens, but these could be vital in preventing hospitalisations and deaths.

Same is the case with the decision to vaccinate the younger population. Data from Europe shows that a substantial number of people getting infected with the Omicron variant are in the lower age groups who have not been vaccinated.

In fact, in some countries like Spain or Italy, the prevalence of the Omicron variant in younger people is almost double of that in the wider population. Even in India, a significant proportion of those confirmed to have been infected with Omicron variant are below the age of 18, and thus unvaccinated.

So getting the 15-18 age group jabbed beginning January 3 and re-vaccinating the elderly and the frontline health workers from January 10 couldn’t be more timely.

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