Action on Omicron: Step up testing to spot new variant, says govt

A man helps his son wear a mask at a testing centre for Covid-19 in a bus station in Bengaluru. Karnataka is increasing tests at bus and railway stations for new Covid-19 variant Omicron. (PTI Photo/Shailendra Bhojak)
In a day of fast-paced global developments related to the Omicron variant, government authorities in India held top-level meetings to prevent a health crisis.  While it was revealed that Europe had Omicron cases before the variant was discovered in South Africa throwing markets and industry into a tizzy, India put up a brave face. Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya told Parliament that the country was ready to face any eventuality. Even so, the government stepped up preparations and Indian vaccine makers indicated they were at work to fight Omicron.      

In a review meeting held by the health ministry, states were told to ramp up testing and intensify physical surveillance of home-quarantined international passengers.  Genome sequencing of all positive samples in hotspots and ‘at-risk’ country-arrivals were also among the directives given to states. Most states, including Delhi and Maharashtra, had their own internal meetings as well.

The Centre told states that RTPCR and rapid antigen tests would be able to detect the Omicron variant, and therefore they must ramp up testing for prompt and early identification of any cases.

Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan, chairing the Centre-states meeting, said, “Ensure ample testing in each district while maintaining the RTPCR ratio.”

All positive samples being detected among international travellers and in hotspots have to be sent for genome sequencing to multi-agency INSACOG Labs promptly. The health ministry also asked states to make sure testing of international passengers is done on the first and the eighth day scrupulously. 

For passengers from at-risk countries in home isolation, states have to ensure physical visits to their homes. “The status of those who are negative after the test on the eighth day will also be physically monitored by the state administration,” the health ministry said. For those not from ‘at risk’ countries, about 2 per cent will be randomly tested for which passengers will bear the cost.    

The civic bodies in Maharashtra are ensuring that the laboratories use a 3-gene RT-PCR test kit as it can act as a first step to detect the Omicron variant in the absence of one particular S-Gene. 

“This can act as an indicator, though not confirmation, that the positive sample may be an Omicron strain. In case there is a surge in cases, and we see that there are hundreds of cases which do not have the S-Gene even though they are RTPCR positive for Covid19, we can then quickly send those samples for genome sequencing to confirm," said Pratibha Panpatil, medical officer, Kalyan Dombivli Municipal Corporation. 

States were also asked to ensure the preparedness of health infrastructure such as availability of ICU, oxygen beds, ventilators, and to implement Emergency Response and Health System Preparedness (ECRP-II) with a focus on rural areas and for paediatric cases. 

Delhi, for instance, has ramped up its oxygen capacity with more storage tanks, PSA plants, spare capacity of cylinders besides a capacity of 30,000 beds of which 10,000 are ICU beds. 

Delhi’s chief minister also said on Tuesday that the national capital is prepared for meeting the challenge and can add 27,000 beds on a short notice. The state has also ordered a two-month buffer stock of 32 medicines which are used in Covid treatment. 

Bhushan said international passengers from ‘at-risk’ countries are being advised to prepare to wait at airports till RTPCR test reports are available.

“Continued need for further vaccination coverage, adherence to Covid appropriate behavior and need to avoid mass gatherings was stressed,” the health ministry said. 

States have been asked to coordinate with Airport Health Officers (APHOs) and 'Air Suvidha' portal for a list of positive travelers and overall surveillance.

The meeting was also attended by Vinod Paul, member-health, Niti Ayog, and Balram Bhargava, director general, Indian Council of Medical Research. 
India ready, says health minister

Union Health minister Mansukh Mandaviya on Tuesday told Parliament that no case of Omicron variant of coronavirus has been detected in India and that a close watch is being kept on the mutant strain. He also said that India is ready to face all situations with much more resources at its disposal today. 

Precautionary steps are in full swing with ports and airports on alert, the minister said. “Omicron has been found in 14 countries but no cases in India yet. Any suspicious case is being checked and sent for genome sequencing. We are keeping a close eye and taking all steps to prevent this virus from entering India,” Mandaviya said in the Rajya Sabha.

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