Tick-Tock Suspense In India Amid The COVID-19 Omicron Variant Scare!

Photo: jagran.com

The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) which is an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses its specific mutations had convened a meeting on 26 November 2021 to assess the emerging COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529 that was first reported to World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa on November 24, 2021. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant that originated in India. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant.

This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other Variants Of Concern (VOCs). The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current RT-PCR tests continue to detect this variant, pending genome sequencing confirmation.

Based on the evidence presented which is indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO, on Friday, has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, naming it as Omicron.

Countries have been asked by the global apex health body to do the following:

1. Enhance surveillance and genome sequencing efforts to better understand the circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.
2. Submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database.
3. Report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.

4. Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.

This scary warning has rudely awakened India from a comfortable slumber registering today the lowest number of active cases in over one and half years, and declining daily infections with only the state of Kerala still showing high figures in both infections and deaths. This situation is significant, because it's now more than three weeks since the biggest festival of Diwali. But the fact remains that laxity creeps in during the festive season in terms of low rates of testing, surveilance and other regulatory measures that implies that the displayed figures may not represent the reality. The most well-known and prominent expert voice, Dr. Randeep Guleria (Director, AIIMS, Delhi), has recently said in his regular interviews to news channels that this time last year too was similar, and surge of infections was taking place in Europe, and then the Delta explosion happened in India. He stressed that preparedness must always be there as we've been again watching multiple surges in Europe at the moment including Russia in particular and the possibility of the much-discussed Third Wave is still lurking in India. Now, the Omicron threat has made the situation here like a lull before the storm. 

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has responded immediately to WHO directions by holding a two-hour health preparedness meeting today morning. He has asked citizens to be proactive and follow all COVID norms. The Prime Minister requested the Aviation sector to review its decision to relax international air travel from December 15 this year and to test and quarantine all international travelers from countries at risk. He stressed upon the need to increase surveilance, strict containment in cluster infections and to ramp up genome sequencing, the same point being also raised by Dr. Guleria in an interview today. Modi also also asked for the full mobilization of the efforts by the states in a collective fight against the pandemic. Alerts have been issued to the health sector and the hospitals. 

The Omicron strain having more than 30 mutations within itself has already spread to countries like Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong. As it enters human bodies through the spike proteins it can be much more infectious and can evade vaccines or immunity. Almost all of the infected people in South Africa have got both doses of vaccination. However, enough data is still not there to say if this variant is deadlier than the Delta or if it can lead to severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths. As a hopeful development the Moderna vaccine producer has said that they can come ready with a booster dose in a few weeks' time to effectively tackle Omicron. 

Many European countries already under surges of Delta infections and having the irony of facing protest-demonstrations against COVID controls, and the US have started imposing travel restrictions for South Africa and other African nations. So then, it is tick-tock suspense on the future course of the pandemic in a relaxed and election bound India. Indian citizens including the politicians and the leaders themselves would be better advised to not let down their guards and follow all norms as sincerely as possible. Another disaster like the Second Wave must be avoided at all costs. One must understand the COVID-19 virus is not going to give up easily even after nearly two years, and on the contrary, this virus is busy adding more ammunition to its armour to go on launching merciless assaults on humankind. In Karnataka, there are cluster infections in students after the reopening of educational institutions and most of the infected have been double-vaccinated. It is imperative now to genome sequence their samples as intensively as possible. 
Vaccination of the under-18 should also be given the highest priority. 



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