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Explained: What is the government’s strategy to tackle Omicron variant of Covid-19?

Omicron in India: The government spelled out its strategy to tackle the new variant of concern — and also answered on contentious issues of the efficacy of vaccines and booster doses.

A health worker vaccinates a beneficiary at an urban primary health centre in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. (Express Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

The Centre Thursday announced that two cases of Covid variant Omicron have been detected through genomic surveillance in Karnataka. The government spelled out its strategy to tackle the new variant of concern — and also answered on contentious issues of the efficacy of vaccines and booster doses.

What Centre said on severity of disease in two persons detected with Omicron

The Centre said the symptoms are mild as of now. “In the cases of Omicron detected in the country, we are not seeing any severe symptoms,” Luv Aggarwal, Joint Secretary, Union Health Ministry said. This is in line with data emerging from other countries that while Omicron is found to be more transmissible, the patients have mild symptoms.

What has the Centre said about the effectiveness of vaccines?

ICMR DG Dr Balram Bhargava highlighted that at present it is premature to comment on the effectiveness of the vaccines against the new variant of concern — and that the Indian scientists have to isolate the Omicron variant, culture, and test it in laboratory settings to ascertain the effectiveness.

“Scientific understanding is that whole-killed virion-based vaccine (Covaxin) may have a wider antigenic presentation and the broad spectrum of effect against the new emergent variants. But we have detected only two Omicron cases and unless we isolate the virus, culture the virus, and test the virus in a laboratory setting — it is premature to comment on the effectiveness of the vaccine,” Bhargava said.

The head of India’s Covid-19 task, Dr. V K Paul, said vaccine manufacturers are also examining the issue of vaccine efficacy.

What is the public health strategy to tackle the new challenge of Omicron?

First, the health ministry said that the public should not panic — and that the emphasis should be on strict compliance of wearing masks and getting the eligible population fully vaccinated.

“Covid-19-appropriate behaviour is required. Use of masks, hand hygiene, and not going to mass gatherings will help break the chain of transmission of Omicron,” Bhargava said.

Paul said that vaccination continues to remain “the most critical tool”. “We are fortunate that we have that tool in abundance. There is no doubt we have to increase the coverage of vaccination. At this point, science tells us that we have to use vaccines. The new variant may dent the efficacy of the vaccine, to some extent; we said the same thing about Delta. It does not matter. We need to look at the big picture. Through full vaccination, we need to protect every individual. We cannot have any backlog of the second dose,” Paul said.

What is the status of providing booster doses?

The Centre also said that scientific reasoning for providing the booster dose is “under examination” — but the focus is to fully vaccinate the population. “We are still learning about the characteristics of Omicron and its impact. Not only in India but also abroad. Diagnostic tests are working. Vaccination has to be pushed because it is protective. That is the information we have. When new information emerges, we will look into it. We are closely studying the imperatives of a booster dose. It is an ongoing exercise in our technical and scientific circles. All that is being carefully examined. As the situation unfolds and more scientific evidence emerges (on Omicron), we will take decisions in the future,” Paul said.

Will the government impose a lockdown?

No. The head of India’s Covid-19 task, Dr. V K Paul, also said there is no requirement for the imposition of any lockdown. Instead, he said that with the emergence of Omicron, it has become even more critical to strictly adopt the ‘universal vaccine’ — that is the wearing of masks. “With the emergence of the new threat of Omicron, there should not be fear but responsibility. It is an unfolding situation. We are learning. But we are ready in every way. This is the mantra we will take forward. …The countries that are taking masking very lightly are seeing a surge in cases. Masking is very important. Avoid crowds and people to gather in very well ventilated spaces,” Paul said.

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