India's first two Omicron cases in Karnataka, govt says no need to panic

From December 1 to 8 am on December 2, 10 Covid-positive cases from at-risk countries were detected and sent for genome sampling
Two cases of the Omicron variant of Coronavirus have been detected in Karnataka by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium, the health ministry said on Thursday, while stressing that there was no need to panic and it was time to speed up vaccination.

The Union health ministry, on grounds of privacy, did not divulge details about the two patients such as where they were from and where they were infected.

However, the health minister of Karnataka, K Sudhakar, told reporters one of the two persons was a 66-year-old South African national who had returned to his country via Dubai, carrying a negative RT-PCR test report taken from a private lab. The second person, Sudhakar said, is a 46-year-old doctor without any travel history.

“Among of his (doctor’s) primary and secondary contacts, five people tested positive for Covid-19. So six people have been isolated and admitted to a government hospital. None of them is showing any serious symptom. All these people have been fully vaccinated,” Sudhakar added.

Amid the demand for booster shots and concern for breakthrough infections in the wake of Omicron, the government said its priority was to make sure all adults get both doses.

“Let us not fear or panic. This is an unfolding situation and we are well prepared ... Vaccination is the most critical tool we have to use to protect every individual,” said V K Paul, member (health), NITI Aayog.

Around 120 million beneficiaries are still due for their second dose, according to the health ministry data, though 84 per cent of the eligible beneficiaries have got one jab and 49 per cent are fully vaccinated.

Adding one more option to its kitty of three available vaccines, the Centre on Thursday said vaccination using the ZyCoV-D DNA vaccine would be with seven states initially.

Vaccination has picked up in the past seven days with the fear of the Omicron variant pushing more people to take jabs. Twenty-four states and Union Territories have shown an uptick in vaccination in the past week or so. The expert group advising the government on vaccination is expected to meet next week to discuss allowing booster shots.

Paul said research on the booster dose and children vaccines in the context of Omicron was on in government committees.

On whether India would consider stopping international flights to contain the new variant, Lav Agarwal, joint secretary, health ministry, said: “There are a lot of unknowns about the virus. We will study the element of risk to make decisions.” 

Balram Bhargava, director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, said: “Unless we are able to isolate and culture the virus and test vaccine effectiveness in lab settings it is premature to say if one vaccine is more effective.”

Besides India, the variant of concern, first detected in South Africa, has been found in 29 countries with 373 cases reported so far.  The early data suggests Omicron has an increased growth rate, but it is not yet known if it is more transmissible than other variants of concern, including Delta, according to the World Health Organization.

From December 1 to 8 am on December 2, 10 Covid-positive cases from at-risk countries were detected and sent for genome sampling. More than 7,900 travellers from these countries went through an RT-PCR test on arrival.

“Our natural infection-led immunity is strong. We have natural immunity for 90 per cent of the people, which is stronger than the vaccine-induced immunity. The worry is for those who have waning immunity due to early vaccine or infection,” said Jacob John, senior virologist and former head of the departments of clinical virology and microbiology at Christian Medical College, Vellore.

Jayaprakash Muliyil, chairman of the scientific advisory committee of the ICMR’s National Institute of Epidemiology, on the other hand, is not in favour of booster shots.

“This virus (Sars-CoV-2) is an excellent immunogen ... Omicron is just one variant. This is not the last variant. More mutations will happen, and more variants will come,” he said. 

Since November 26, when WHO designated Omicron as a variant of concern, India has conducted genome sampling of 883 samples, all of which were found to be Delta variant, Sujeet Singh, director of national centre for disease control said. 

While reports of cases of Omicron range from mild to severe it is too early to assess whether infection causes more or less severe disease. “Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may reflect force of infection, rather than increased virulence,” the health ministry said, sharing WHO’s inputs on the matter. 

The Omicron variant has 45-52 mutations of which 26-32 are spike mutations some of which are also present in other variants of concern including Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

In earlier variants these mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility and improved binding affinity which makes it easier for the virus to attach to cells.  

Sharing an analysis by Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington DC the health ministry said that the B1.1.529 or Omicron is possibly 500 per cent more competitively infectious and has more than twice the number of bad spike mutations than Delta. 

“This data needs to be analysed with more evidence,” Agarwal added. 

Many experts have said booster shots may be necessary if Omicron has immune escape tendency and while advising caution some epidemiologists also said that the variant may not wreak havoc in India. 

“Our natural infection led immunity is strong. We have natural immunity for 90 percent of people, stronger than vaccine induced immunity. Worry is for those who have waning immunity due to early vaccine or infection,” said Jacob John, senior virologist and former head of the departments of clinical virology and microbiology at Christian Medical College, Vellore. 

Jayaprakash Muliyil, Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the ICMR’s National Institute of Epidemiology, on the other hand, is not in favour of booster shots. “This virus (Sars-CoV-2) is an excellent immunogen...Omicron is just one variant. This is not the last variant. More mutations will happen, and more variants will come,” he said.


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