Rajat Sharma

Omicron variant enters India: Will it prove lethal?

akbOn Thursday, there was both good and bad news from the Covid warfront. The good news was that India achieved another milestone of administering 125 crore vaccine doses and nearly 49 per cent Indians have been given both the doses. The bad news was that for the first time, India reported two cases of Omicron variant, from Karnataka.

Omicron variant was detected from a 66 year old flyer who had come to Bengaluru from South Africa on November 20. RT-PCR test was done on him, and on being found positive, it was sent for genome sequencing. He represents a Johannesburg-based pharma company, checked into a hotel. On November 23, he got himself tested from a private lab, was tested negative and he quietly left in a flight from Bengaluru to Dubai on November 27. On December 2, the genome sequencing report showed he was infected with Omicron variant. He had 24 primary and 240 secondary contacts, and all of them have tested negative.

The other person detected with Omicron variant was a 46-year-old anaesthetist Indian doctor from Bengaluru with no travel history. This is surprising. On November 21, RT-PCR test was done on him and the next day the report showed positive. He was hospitalized on November 25, and was discharged two days later. On December 2, the genome sequencing report showed he was infected with Omicron variant.

The health department in Bengaluru is now busy tracing all primary and secondary contacts of these two patients. So far 37 primary and more than 450 secondary contacts have been traced, and have been isolated. All these contacts have undergone tests and genome sequencing is being done to detect Omicron variant. The good news is that the doctor and many of his contacts have so far not shown any serious symptoms and may be freed from isolation.

The moot point is that despite all precautions, the Omicron variant has reached India, and there are reports that some people in Mumbai and Delhi may have been infected with this variant. It will be clear only when the genome sequencing is done. A man who arrived in Jamnagar, Gujarat, has undergone test, and his genome sequencing report is awaited.

The Centre and state governments are now focused on two issues: One, how to prevent spread of Omicron variant in India, and Two, how to carry out stringent screening of all travellers arriving in India. Work is going on at both levels.

Twelve countries have been put in “at risk” category, and all travellers arriving from these countries must undergo mandatory RT-PCR test. They cannot leave the airport till the test report comes. Travellers tested positive will be isolated immediately and their samples will be sent for genome sequencing. Those from “at risk” category countries arriving in India, and found negative, will nevertheless stay in home isolation for a week. They will have to undergo another Covid test on the eighth day.

Travellers arriving from other countries to India will undergo random testing at airports. They will be allowed to go home only after giving their samples. Those tested positive will be isolated and their samples will be sent for genome sequencing. If Omicron variant is found, they will be treated as per established protocol.

The problem is: more than 8,000 flyers reach Indian airports daily from 31 countries. To carry out RT-PCR tests of all, and then to isolate them inside airports, is a tough job. Most of the international flyers who arrived in Delhi on Thursday were a harried lot, when they were prevented from leaving airport. Their anger is understandable but India cannot afford to face another wave of the type that engulfed the nation in April and May this year, resulting in deaths of people. Our experts are still not fully aware of the details of the new Omicron variant.

Scientists say that most of the patients detected with Omicron variant across the world, have, till now, mild symptoms. More than a lakh people in the US are being tested positive daily, but most of them are infected with Delta variant. However, Omicron variant spreads five times faster compared to the Delta variant. Already Omicron variant has undergone 52 mutations and it has become difficult for experts while doing genome sequencing. Till now, 375 Omicron cases have been detected across 29 countries. No detailed studies have yet been made about the lethal effects of Omicron variant.

We must realize the fact that Omicron variant has already reached Indian shores. RT-PCR tests can only reveal whether a patient is tested negative or positive, it cannot determine the variant. Genome sequencing facility is available in only 37 labs across India. Even now, there is no idea how much lethal this new variant is. The only fact that has come out is that it spreads at a fast rate. Precaution is the need of the hour.

The question is: whether this variant will be the harbinger of a third Covid wave? Will the third wave be more lethal compared to the second one? Experts say, till now most of the Omicron patients detected have been either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. The variant may spread fast, but may not be severe. It can then be a blessing in disguise. In other words, it could open up the path for an end to Coronavirus, because this new variant will replace the Delta variant. Conversely, if the Omicron variant is found lethal, it could be a troubling time for all.

The next question is: how to protect yourself from the new variant? Vaccination seems to be the answer. Those who are still not vaccinated, should get the dose immediately, and those waiting for their second dose, must complete it. Follow all other precautions, like avoiding mass gatherings, wearing masks, washing your hands regularly with soap or sanitizer. Stay away from crowds at weddings or busy markets. Since kids below the age of 18 years have not been vaccinated, we should take more care of them, and ensure that they follow precautions. This is the only way to protect yourself from the virus. There is no need to panic, but remain careful.

As of now, it is still not established whether Covid vaccines have been found effective against Omicron variant or not.

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