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Monday, January 24, 2022

Drop in mask use has put India in danger zone: Govt

25 Omicron cases so far; nine have no foreign travel history, 14 fully vaccinated.

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi |
Updated: December 11, 2021 7:18:16 am
Significantly, the data shows that 14 persons detected with Omicron in India were fully vaccinated, indicating breakthrough infections caused by the new variant — Covishield (8), Pfizer (5) and, Sinovac (1).

With several countries in Europe reporting a new surge in Covid-19 cases and Omicron emerging as a highly transmissible variant, the government warned Friday that India has “entered the danger zone” with mask usage in the country dropping to levels below the pre-second wave.

The government said 25 cases of Omicron have been detected so far in the country. According to available data on clinical symptoms, nine cases have been symptomatic and 14 asymptomatic. The government said nine of these persons did not have foreign travel history.

Significantly, the data shows that 14 persons detected with Omicron in India were fully vaccinated, indicating breakthrough infections caused by the new variant — Covishield (8), Pfizer (5) and, Sinovac (1).

Dr V K Paul, head of India’s Covid-19 task force, said the efficacy of vaccines against the new Omicron variant is still being examined. He, however, emphasised that mask usage “is a universal and social vaccine which is effective against any variant”.

“I would like to draw your attention to a reality check, on an assessment of the mask usage presently going on in our country. This comes from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation which does these estimates for several countries. Just before the second surge, mask usage was at a low level. When the cases started to rise dramatically in May, we all responded, and everyone started to wear masks out of fear,” he said.


Global lessons

The task force chief's warning comes at a time when Europe and parts of the US are reporting a surge in Covid cases and Omicron has emerged as a transmissible variant. Underlining the use of masks, the government is calling for vigilance, saying the virus can throw surprises.

“In August, we saw a decline. And in December, we have again gone back to the same position. According to this estimate, it has in fact declined even further compared to the March levels. In a way, we have entered the danger zone. Technically speaking, from a protection capability point of view, we are now operating at a low level. This is an unacceptable level. It is a risky level,” he said.

While India is currently reporting a decline in cases, Paul flagged the emergence of 70 clusters of Covid-19 cases. “We should keep in mind that the country is witnessing a cluster of cases. Approximately, we have seen 70 such clusters. We are investigating them… and found that it is still caused due to the Delta variant. This is why both doses of vaccination are very important. There is no need to panic, but we need to be vigilant,” he said.

“Before the second surge, we were at the same level (of mask usage). Suddenly, the situation changed. It was collective complacency. It cost us a lot. We are again warning that time has still not come to discard mask usage. Both vaccines and masks are a must,” he said.

Paul’s warning came in the backdrop of a sudden surge in cases across Europe and parts of the US. “The global scenario, especially on Omicron and R0, is very disturbing. The UK is reporting 700 cases per million population. This is almost twice what we experienced earlier this year. This is not a small number. It is due to Delta, but Omicron is also contributing. France is also seeing a surge. The US is witnessing 4-5 lakh cases per day. We have to learn from the global situation. The virus can throw surprises. Therefore, we need to be vigilant. And the mask is a universal and social vaccine which is effective against any variant,” he said.

ICMR chief Dr Balram Bhargava said India will soon begin testing of Covaxin and Covishield against Omicron. “We have at this moment, in India, seen 25 cases of Omicron. NIV Pune has got samples from these individuals. We are trying to grow the virus… inoculate it in the culture medium, so that it grows. Once we grow the virus, we will be able to test in the laboratory. And then we will test the efficacy of both Covaxin and Covishield. The work has started and we are trying multiple cultures to grow the virus,” he said.

Bhargava said clinically, Omicron is not yet posing a burden on the healthcare system. “However, the vigil has to be maintained. Regular meetings are being organised to keep a watch on global scenarios. District-level restrictions are to be implemented where test positivity is more than 5 per cent. Also, scientific evidence for diagnosis and treatment are being reviewed. The treatment remains unchanged at the moment,” he said.

He said while India is still examining the issue of administering booster doses, the current data shows that antibody response persists for over 9 months after vaccination.

“There are three aspects of vaccine efficacy: antibody response, cellular immunity and mucosal immunity. To measure cellular immunity and mucosal immunity is tough, expensive and time-consuming. But we can measure antibody response. That data has shown that vaccines are still effective after nine months to a year. This depends on the type of vaccines,” Bhargava said.

“Even if the antibody response falls, the vaccines are still effective. It also varies from individual to individual. But we have seen that antibody response persists even after a year in many people, after the infection. Extrapolating that, we can say it is for nine months. Right now, cellular immunity and mucosal immunity persist. We can still have protection,” he said.

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