Centre anticipates severity of Omicron variant of COVID in India to be low
New Delhi:The Centre on Friday said it anticipates the severity of the Omicron variant of coronavirus to be low in the country given the fast pace of vaccination and high exposure to the Delta variant, a day after the first two cases of the new variant was reported in Karnataka, and that a decision on a COVID vaccine booster dose will be on the basis of scientific guidance from experts.
The Union Health Ministry, however, said the scientific evidence for the expected severity of the disease is still evolving, as debates about the booster jabs heat up and several states ramp up testing and step up surveillance for the potentially more contagious variant.
It also noted there is no evidence to suggest that existing vaccines do not work on the new variant that was reported by South Africa to the World Health Organisation(WHO) on November 24.
In the Lok Sabha, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said RT-PCR tests have been conducted on 16,000 passengers from "at-risk" countries, of whom 18 have tested positive for COVID-19. The number of the positive cases is expected to be slightly more than 18 going by reports from states.
Replying to an 11-hour-long debate on the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the swab samples of the affected passengers have been sent for genome sequencing to screen for the Omicron variant of the virus.
After several members had flagged the issue of booster doses of COVID vaccines and had expressed concern over the new variant of the virus during the debate on Thursday, he said a decision on a booster dose and vaccines for children will be taken on the basis of scientific guidance from experts.
In a written reply, Mandaviya said the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (NTAGI) and the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC) are deliberating and considering scientific evidences related to this aspect.
The minister's remarks came against the backdrop of the assessment by the country's top genome scientists that a booster dose “may be considered” for people above 40 years.
“Vaccination of all remaining unvaccinated at-risk people and consideration of a booster dose for those 40 years of age and over, first targeting the most high-risk / high-exposure may be considered,” the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Sequencing Consortium (INSACOG) said in its weekly bulletin dated November 29. The INSACOG is a network of national testing labs set up by the government to monitor genomic variations of COVID-19.
The country's first two cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 were recorded in Karnataka--in a 66-year-old South African flyer and a 46-year-old Bengaluru doctor with no travel history and both men fully vaccinated. The Karnataka government, meanwhile, ordered a probe into test reports of the foreign national that allowed him to leave India.
The Health Ministry also issued a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the Omicron variant and said while there is no evidence to suggest that existing vaccines do not work on the variant some of the mutations reported may decrease the efficacy of the jabs. It, however, underscored that definitive evidence for the new variant's increased remission and immune evasion is awaited.
Omicron cases are increasingly being reported from countries outside of South Africa and given its characteristics, it is likely to spread to more countries, including India, it said.
"However, the scale and magnitude of the rise in cases and the severity of the disease are still not clear.
"Further, given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to delta variant as evidenced by high seropositivity, the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low. However, scientific evidence is still evolving," the Health Ministry said.
From the list of FAQs, the ministry, answering whether the existing vaccines work against the Omicron variant, said, "While, there is no evidence to suggest that existing vaccines do not work on Omicron, some of the mutations reported on spike gene may decrease the efficacy of existing vaccines." However, vaccine protection is also by antibodies as well as by cellular immunity, which is expected to be relatively better preserved.
Hence, vaccines are expected to still offer protection against severe disease and vaccination is crucial. If eligible one should get vaccinated, it added.
The ministry also stressed that the precautions and steps to be taken remain the same as before.
"It's essential to mask yourself properly, take both doses of vaccines (if not yet vaccinated), maintain social distancing and maintain good ventilation to the maximum possible."
The ministry said that variants are a normal part of evolution and as long as the virus can infect, replicate and transmit, they will continue to evolve. "Further, not all variants are dangerous and most often than not, we don't notice them. Only when they are more infectious or can reinfect people they gain prominence. The most important step to avoid the generation of variants is to reduce the number of infections."
A member of the Maharashtra government's COVID-19 task force, meanwhile, said a booster dose of vaccine, even if it works, is just a "temporary fix", and that vigilance, genome sequencing, improving border surveillance and vaccination are some of the things that are necessary to tackle the new Omicron variant.
The task force member, Dr Vasant Nagvekar, who is a consultant on infectious diseases at a Mumbai-based hospital, said in a statement that although there was no need to panic, the Omicron variant is definitely a cause of concern.
"Scientific data has proven that masks can reduce COVID-19 transmission by 53 per cent...A booster dose of vaccine, even if it works, is just a temporary fix. We can't keep on taking boosters every six months and for every variant of concern that emerges. Masking is the need of the hour and there is no alternative for vaccination," he said.
In Bengaluru, the probe into the South African national's COVID test came after questions were raised on how he managed to get a negative report within three days after testing positive for COVID on arrival and also about him reportedly attending some official meeting, and leaving the country even as his genomic sequencing reports were awaited.
"The person (66-year-old) had isolated at a hotel and he has gone from there (outside the country). First his (COVID test) report came positive and then re-test came negative. Whether there was any mishandling, whether the lab tests were accurate or was there any wrong doing, the police commissioner has been directed to investigate this," Revenue Minister R Ashoka said.
Speaking to reporters after a high-level meeting chaired by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, he said the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike(BBMP) Commissioner has been directed to file a case at the city's High Ground Police Station in this regard.
Amid some reports that at least 10 South African travellers have gone untraceable after reaching Bengaluru, the state government also directed officials to look into it, trace them immediately and get them tested.
In West Bengal, a senior official of the health department said the state government is planning to soon conduct trials of COVID-19 vaccine booster shots in the metropolis, and has started feasibility tests at different medical establishments.
Six hospitals have come forward so far, expressing their willingness to be part of the trials, he said. "We are conducting feasibility tests in the city, where we are planning to have trials of the booster dose." PTI