Updated: January 11, 2022 9:47:57 am
The turn taken by the pandemic in the past two weeks has made the smooth conduct of the “precautionary” inoculation drive for the elderly, healthcare professionals and frontline workers, that commenced from Monday, imperative. While the virus seems to have assumed a milder form during the current wave, some of the caveats issued by the WHO late November after South African authorities alerted the world about the pathogen’s newest variant, Omicron, remain salient. The global health agency had warned that Omicron’s high transmissibility could offset its less virulent character and stressed the need for protecting the aged and the immunocompromised. Reports of large numbers of doctors in Delhi and Mumbai being afflicted by Covid should also be a matter of concern. While these medics do not have a severe form of the disease and hospitalisation rates have, so far, been low, the healthcare sector can ill-afford the absence of large numbers of doctors, nurses, and paramedics. There are already reports of hospitals in Delhi having to cut down on routine consultations and surgeries. That’s why a section of experts believes that the country would have been better prepared to take on the current outbreak had it planned the drive for additional doses earlier.
Last week, the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation ended speculation about the vaccines to be used for “precautionary” doses. Given the lack of consensus on a mixed vaccine approach, the expert body did the right thing in recommending that the precautionary dose would be the same as the first two jabs. Moreover, evidence from the UK shows that the third dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine — Covishield in India — reduces severe Covid and hospitalisation by 88 per cent. Conversations on mixing vaccines must, however, continue. Unlike in the US and Europe, there have been very few studies in India on vaccine effectiveness and experts rightly believe that more data on the duration of the immunity offered by the vaccines in use in the country will help in the quest for developing more potent boosters. The propensity of the virus to mutate into variants like Omicron that can undermine vaccine performance and cause breakthrough infections has added a new dimension to this discourse. Preliminary studies show that a broad booster approach can bring down the R number — the number of people infected by a Covid positive person — to less than 1 during the Omicron-driven surge. The government’s next task, therefore, should be to make the coverage of the additional doses more expansive. It must also begin planning to extend the inoculation drive for children.
Omicron has once again underlined that the virus is a moving target. We are, however, much better prepared to take on the contagion’s newest avatar compared to the despair-filled days of the second wave. In the coming weeks and months, the government and scientific bodies must endeavour to strengthen the shield provided by vaccines.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on January 11, 2022 under the title ‘Fortify the shield’.