Concerns over the new variant takes the center stage as people flush the streets and the government fails to communicate clearly
After a devastating second wave and the following slackening of restrictions many imagined for a hopeful new year ahead. But the discovery of a new COVID-19 variant – Omicron – compels us to reconsider that position, and question the state of preparedness and what Omicron means to India.
Background and WHO
Omicron, a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, was first identified in Botswana, Africa in November and has since spread to more than 77 countries. Preliminary evidence suggests that this variant may be responsible for the steep rise of cases in the Gauteng province of South Africa. In this region, 90% of samples from the past few weeks have been of the Omicron variant. This variant has a large number of mutations. Some of them are cause for serious concern because they may allow the new variant to evade immunity obtained from a past infection or via a vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently labelled this variant as a ‘variant of concern’.
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According to the World Health Organisation, Omicron is a highly transmissible variant – more transmissible than the formerly discovered Delta variant.
WHO also said on Sunday that despite the higher transmissibility, the Omicron variant caused “milder” symptoms in those testing positive for it.
However, the finding about Omicron’s impact on vaccine efficacy has led to serious concerns among the government and people of India. WHO has said that while Omicron symptoms are milder than Delta, it may reduce the efficacy of existing vaccines. “A reduction in vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission,” added the release.
Vaccine efficacy and booster dose
Virologist, Shahid Jameel, in an interview to CNBC TV18 said that “vaccines do not protect very well from re-infection by Omicron but they continue to protect from severe disease.” When a vaccine is given to any community, there is always an expectation of 70 per cent efficacy. Meaning, if 1,000 people are vaccinated, the risk is reduced for all 1,000 people by 70 per cent, added Jameel who is the former head of the scientific advisory group to the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortia (INSACOG).
“It’s a misconception that the Covid vaccine protects against infection. It protects against severe disease,” the virologist said on claims that two doses of Covid vaccines are not effective enough to prevent Omicron.
However, the bigger priority for India is to get the second dose in people who have only one dose and get two doses in people who have no doses, Jameel said.
In early data from the United Kingdom, Omicron reduces vaccine efficacy against symptomatic infection by a lot. Whether it will also reduce efficacy against severe disease is unknown but expected to be much smaller.
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While nations like the United Kingdom are pushing booster shots as the ‘best thing,’ the Indian government is still considering for the same. The government informed Lok Sabha last week that the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (NTAGI) and National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC) were carrying out studies and considering scientific evidence vis-à-vis booster shots.
Meanwhile a set of experts believe that there are several concerns that are needed to be addressed before any booster dose is cleared by the government.
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Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla chaired a meeting on Thursday to review the Covid-19 situation in Union territories, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said. Thursday’s meeting took place amid rising cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in the country.
Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan on Wednesday held a meeting with states and UTs to review the status and preparedness regarding medical oxygen devices and systems (pressure swing adsorption plants, liquid medical oxygen plants, oxygen concentrators, medical gas pipeline system), through a video conference. “Medical oxygen is an essential public health commodity and its uninterrupted supply in sufficient quantity is of critical importance to tackle the pandemic,” Bhushan said, while addressing states and UTs. (Press release)
Meanwhile, India reported five more cases of omicron in Karnataka and the first case in Tamil Nadu.