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Omicron: India to review Covid SOP, countries impose travel curbs, and other key developments today

South Africa's top health federation on Sunday slammed the 18 nations which have imposed travel bans on the country, saying the world must avoid such 'knee-jerk reactions' if it wants 'transparency' in the sharing of critical medical data.

As the world grapples with the emergence of the new variant of COVID-19, scientists in South Africa — where omicron was first identified — are scrambling to combat its spread across the country. (AP)

In view of the threat posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19, an urgent meeting was chaired by Union Home Secretary Rajesh Bhushan after a review of the situation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Ministry of Home Affairs said on Sunday.

MHA said that taking into consideration the current global scenario, ways to strengthen preventive measures were discussed in the meeting. The Centre will now review SOP on testing and surveillance of international passengers, especially from countries in the ‘at risk’ category. Moreover, genomic surveillance for Covid-19 variants will be further intensified.

As reports emerge of the Omicron variant spreading to more countries and the Centre mulls steps to prevent the possibility of a fresh spike in Covid-19 cases, here are the top developments of the day:

Test international travellers, focus on genome sequencing: Centre tells states

With WHO having classified Omicron as a variant of concern, the Health Ministry has directed the states to review the detailed travel history of passengers arriving via international flights and to absolutely ensure that travellers from “at-risk” countries are tested. All samples which test Covid-positive should be promptly sent for genome sequencing, the ministry said.

Union Health Secretary Bhushan, while highlighting to the states the need for rigorous surveillance of international passengers, said that there is “already a reporting mechanism for obtaining past travel details of passengers coming through international flight”.

The Health Ministry has directed the states to review the detailed travel history of passengers arriving via international flights. (AP)

The Health Ministry has asked the states to ensure continuous monitoring of hotspots, which are areas where a recent cluster of positive cases have emerged. Bhushan has also asked the states to implement intensive containment measures, undertake active surveillance to ensure Covid-appropriate behaviour is followed, and increase vaccination coverage.

Omicron variant may bypass vaccines: AIIMS chief

The new Omicron variant has reportedly got over 30 mutations in the spike protein region, giving it the potential to develop an immunoescape mechanism, and thus the efficacy of vaccines against it needs to be evaluated critically, AIIMS chief Dr Randeep Guelria has said.

The presence of spike protein facilitates a virus’ entry into the host cell and is responsible for making it transmissible and causing infection. “The new variant of coronavirus reportedly has got more than 30 mutations at the spike protein region and therefore has the potential of developing immunoescape mechanisms. As most vaccines (work by) forming antibodies against the spike protein, so many mutations at the spike protein region may lead to a decreased efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines,” AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guelria told PTI.

In such a scenario, the efficacy of vaccines including those in use in India needs to be evaluated “critically”, he added.

‘Covid not over yet,’ PM Modi warns in ‘Mann Ki Baat’

Amid reports of the Omicron variant having spread to many countries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned in the 83rd episode of his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ radio programme that the “pandemic is not yet over”, urging people to remain vigilant and adopt all possible precautions to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

“Never forget that corona has not gone yet. It is our responsibility to take all precautions,” PM Modi said before signing off.

On Saturday, PM Modi had chaired a high-level conference with top officials to discuss the possible impact of the new variant as well as mitigation strategies.

Kejriwal writes to PM requesting him to stop flights from certain regions

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi Sunday, requesting him to stop international flights from regions seeing a rise in Covid-19 cases.

“Our country has fought a tough fight against Corona for the last one and a half years. With great difficulty and due to the selfless service of millions of our Covid warriors, our country has recovered from Corona. We should do everything possible to prevent the new variant of concern, recently recognised by WHO, from entering India. A number of countries, including the European Union, have suspended travel to the affected regions. I urge you to stop flights from these regions with immediate effect. Any delay in this regard may prove harmful if any affected person enters India,” he wrote.

BMC announces new restrictions for international passengers

The Mumbai civic body has introduced new restrictions for international passengers arriving in the city and sounded “extreme vigilance” in the regard.

According to the latest guidelines issued by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), international passengers travelling from or transiting through South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana — the three countries where Omicron has been detected – will have to undergo mandatory RT-PCR tests at the Mumbai Airport. If a traveller tests positive for Covid-19, they will be sent to institutional quarantine and the samples will be sent for genome sequencing. Until recently, a passenger testing positive was sent to home quarantine.

All passengers arriving at the Mumbai airport will have to get their passport scrutinised at the immigration counter for travel history of the last two weeks.

South Africans who were Covid-positive were infected with Delta variant: Official

The two South African nationals who tested positive for COVID-19 in Bengaluru were found to be infected with the delta variant, a Bengaluru Rural district official said requesting anonymity.

He said the duo had tested positive on November 11 and November 20, raising fears they were infected with the new COVID-19 variant ‘Omicron’, which has become a new cause of worry globally. According to him, from November 1 to 26, 94 people had come from South Africa, out of which two tested positive for regular Covid-19.

Australia confirms two cases of Omicron variant

Australia confirmed on Sunday that two people arriving from Africa over the weekend had tested positive for the Omicron coronavirus variant, adding to a growing number of countries fighting the highly infectious strain.

Health officials in New South Wales, the most populous state, said both passengers had arrived in the state capital, Sydney, on Saturday evening and tested positive for Covid-19 late that night, before genome sequencing confirmed the Omicron variant on Sunday.

Australia joined Britain, Germany and Italy in detecting Omicron cases over the weekend as more nations imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa.

Indonesia to ban arrivals from 8 African countries

Indonesia will ban the arrival of travellers who have been in eight African countries to curb the spread of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19, an official document showed on Sunday. Indonesia, home to popular tourist island Bali, will not allow people who have been in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Eswatini or Nigeria in the past 14 days.

Israel bans foreign travellers

Israel moved to ban entry by foreigners and mandate quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.

“Restrictions on the country’s borders is not an easy step, but it’s a temporary and necessary step,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Dr. Ran Balicer, head of the government’s advisory panel on Covid-19, told Israel’s Kan public radio that the new measures were necessary for the “fog of war” surrounding the new variant, saying it was “better to act early and strictly” to prevent its spread.

South Africa slams countries for imposing travel bans

South Africa’s top health federation on Sunday slammed the 18 nations which have imposed travel bans on the country, saying the world must avoid such “knee-jerk reaction” if it wants “transparency” in the sharing of critical medical data.

Students from the Tshwane University of Technology make their way back to their residence in Pretoria, South Africa (AP)

The decision by 18 countries to ban flights to and from South Africa was “premature, as there is still not enough information on how dangerous the variant might be”, Angelique Coetzee, Chairman of South African Medical Association (SAMA) said.

Coetzee also defended the decision to announce the findings, pointing out that South Africa should be lauded and not vilified for this. “My suspicion is that because our scientists are very alert and doing a lot of sequencing in the background, maybe those European countries missed it because of the symptoms,” Coetzee told the TV news channel Newzroom Afrika.

(With agency inputs)

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