Updated: December 3, 2021 7:03:01 am
The Union Health Ministry said Thursday that Omicron, the latest Covid variant of concern, has been detected for the first time in India in two cases from Karnataka through genomic surveillance.
The Ministry, however, stressed that there was no need to panic, called for strict adherence to Covid-appropriate behaviour and urged everyone to adopt the “universal vaccine” of wearing masks to tackle the new challenge.
“Two cases of the Omicron variant have been found positive. The first is a 66-year-old male and the other is a 46-year-old male… Mostly in all the cases related to Omicron, at present, the symptoms are mild. In the cases of Omicron detected in the country, we are not seeing any severe symptoms,” Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Health Ministry, said.
Dr V K Paul, who heads the country’s Covid task force, said India is following a two-pronged strategy. “First, we have increased our surveillance on international travel. We have (the strategy of) test, track and treat. Second, inside the country, we have to watch the new clusters, hospitalisations, cases, with higher intensity,” he said.
Paul also said that the scientific reasoning for providing booster doses is “under examination”, although the focus is to first fully vaccinate the population.
Referring to the two cases of Omicron, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) chief Dr Balram Bhargava urged the public not to panic. “There is no need to panic. But awareness is absolutely essential. Covid-appropriate behaviour is required. The use of masks, hand hygiene, and not going to mass gatherings, will help break the chain of transmission of Omicron,” he said.
Responding to a question on the effectiveness of existing vaccines against the new variant, Bhargava said it is “premature” to take a call on the issue.
“Scientific understanding is that whole killed virion based vaccines may have a wider antigenic presentation and 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,” he said.
Whole killed virion based vaccines are those in which the virus is inactivated. When an inactivated vaccine enters the body, it makes antibodies at multiple target points.
Theoretically, such vaccines have the potential to target mutated coronavirus strains. Of the three vaccines deployed so far in India — Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik — only Covaxin falls in this category.
Dr Paul, meanwhile, emphasised that vaccination remains “the most critical tool”. “We are fortunate that we have that tool in plenty. 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,” he said.
Paul also said there is no requirement for any lockdown. Instead, he said, it is even more critical to strictly adopt the “universal vaccine” of masks.
“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. People should avoid crowds and gather only in very well ventilated spaces,” he said.
Asked about the policy on booster doses, Paul said: “We are closely studying the imperatives…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.”
On Wednesday, The Indian Express reported that health authorities in South Africa, where the first ever cases of Omicron were detected, have conveyed to experts in India that they are witnessing “very low hospitalisation” directly linked to the new variant — but it is “highly transmissibile” with patients experiencing extreme fatigue even with mild disease.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has assessed global risk from the newly discovered variant as “very high”.
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