Rajat Sharma

Omicron variant : We can’t afford to take chances

AKBToday I want to caution all of you about the dangers posed by the highly contagious new Omicron variant that is spreading fast across the world and may strike India any time now. World Health Organization has warned that the global risk from this new Omicron variant of Coronavirus is “very high” based on early evidence and it could lead to surge in infections with severe consequences. “Considerable uncertainties remain about the new variant that was first detected in southern Africa. Likelihood of possible further spread around the world is high ”, the WHO said.

The second wave of pandemic that engulfed India during April and May was due to the Delta variant, which caused deaths of several lakh people across the world. This new Omicron variant spreads six times faster than the Delta variant. It was first detected on November 22 by South Africa. The most worrying part is that the Omicron variant has already undergone more than 50 mutations.

On Monday night, US President Joe Biden said, this new variant is a cause of concern, not a cause for panic. He said, the US is going to fight this variant this winter not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.” This new variant has spread to least 13 countries within a span of a week, but, according to our Health Ministry, India is yet to detect a single case of Omicron variant.

This new variant has, till now, been detected in South Africa, UK, Botswana, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal, Belgium, Israel, Italy ,Czech Republic, Hong Kong and Australia. Entry of all foreigners into Japan, Israel and Morocco has been prohibited, while most of the countries, including India, have enforced compulsory testing of all incoming passengers.

However, the fact remains that at least 1,000 travellers have come to Mumbai from south African countries in the last two weeks. Swab samples of only 100 out of 466 travellers have been collected so far by the municipal body, BMC, and none have been reported positive. More than 400 travellers have already travelled to other locations and they are being traced.

According to WHO, Omicron variant is highly contagious and it spreads faster, and that is why, it has been declared a variant of concern within four days of being detected. Since it has mutated to more than 50 forms, it will be difficult for experts to carry out genome sequencing.

WHO has further said that mere home isolation will not do for this new variant. Naturally, the pressure on hospital beds will become high. The mortality rate of this new variant is not yet clear as research work is already on. It is not known as to which age group will be affected more by this new variant. Till the time studies are not complete, WHO has insisted on current standard operating procedures, like wearing masks, social distancing, testing and staying away from crowded places.

The National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) is going to decide next week on an experts committee recommendation that an additional dose should be given to those who are immunocompromised or are elderly or at high risk of infection or death due to Covid-19 infection. According to experts, vaccination is a strong public health measure, and even when a variant is undergoing mutations, vaccines may prove protective to a large extent. Some experts say, existing vaccines should be highly effective at preventing severe disease that may be caused by Omicron variant.

In Bengaluru, two travellers who came from South Africa were tested positive. One of them is stable, while the other patient is showing symptoms different from those of Delta variant. Swab samples of both of them have been sent for genome sequencing. The Karnataka health minister Dr K. Sudhakar has said that it would be difficult to prevent the omicron variant from entering India.

Meanwhile, number of Covid-19 cases is growing in some states of India. At the Dharwar medical college in Karnataka, 66 students were found Corona positive on Wednesday, and the number jumped to 99 by Saturday. Now, the number stands at 280, which includes both students and staff. The main cause was a freshers’ party that took place in the medical college a week ago. Since most of the people had taken both the doses, there was no serious issue.

Similarly, in Rajasthan, 22 students of a school were tested positive, while in Sundergarh and Sambalpur in Odisha, 53 female students in a residential school and 22 MBBS students were tested positive. In Bhiwandi, near Mumbai, 67 inmates of Matoshri Old Age Home were tested positive. All of them had been vaccinated and are now undergoing treatment in a hospital in Thane.

The director general of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Shekhar C. Mande has said that vaccination is the only way out. It is essential that all of us must get ourselves vaccinated, he added. Already, 122 crore doses have been administered to people across India, and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the opening day of Parliament’s winter session, has said the new Omicron variant was surely an issue of concern. He appealed to people to follow Covid guidelines and avoid crowds.

Overall, I feel, facts relating to the new Omicron variant are still sketchy, there is very limited information, but the situation can become scary. We can ignore the risks at our own peril.

We cannot forget how people in India were struggling to breathe, in the absence of oxygen and hospital beds, during April and May this year, at the time of second wave. We cannot afford to become complacent. Secondly, in several places of India, people including medical students, in groups have been tested positive. They were infected by Coronavirus of old variants. Since most of them had taken double doses, there were minimum fatalities. Thirdly, it will be too early to say that vaccines will not be effective against the new Omicron variant.

WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan has said, no variant, old or new, can bypass a vaccine 100 per cent. If any individual has taken vaccine and has antibodies, these can resist the invasion of new variants. I would therefore appeal to all to take both your doses of vaccination, because vaccine is the most effective method of preventing an infected person from going to hospitals. Be careful, stay away from crowds, and keep using masks. Masks are as good as ‘vaccines in your pocket’ and have been found very effective in indoor settings.

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