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Vigilance, genome sequencing, border surveillance and vaccination key things against Omicron: Expert


MUMBAI: A member of the Maharashtra government's COVID-19 task force on Thursday said that vigilance, genome sequencing, improving border surveillance and vaccination are some of the things that are necessary to tackle the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

The task force member, Dr Vasant Nagvekar, who is a consultant on infectious diseases at a city-based hospital, said in a statement that although there was no need to panic, the Omicron variant is definitely a cause of concern.

"What we need is vigilance. This variant has accumulated 50 mutations and has caused a lot of concern. It could be more transmissible, and it could also be immune-evasive. But so far, there is no proof that it produces more severe infections. The early data from South Africa shows most patients are younger and the variant produces milder infections," he said.

Dr Nagvekar said that for now the variant appears to be stable, with high transmissibility, but low virulence, which perhaps explains the lack of surge in hospitalisations and deaths where it was earlier reported.

"We need vigilance, improvement in border surveillance, genomic sequencing and vaccination cover," he said, urging people to keep wearing masks.

"Scientific data has proven that masks can reduce COVID-91 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.

Apart from the restrictions, strict contact tracing, isolation and quarantine of close contacts are some very important things, he said.

Scientific reasoning for booster vaccine doses for COVID-19 is under examination but the priority is to ensure complete vaccination of the eligible population with both doses, the government said on Thursday.

In a press briefing, in which the government also announced the detection of two cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in India, Health Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said, "The scientific reasoning for boosters at what timing for which vaccine all that is under examination."

"Our priority is the complete task of administering both vaccines and this is the strategy which will give us the best dividend," he said while responding to a question.

On the significance of vaccination in view of the new variant, NITI Aayog member (Health) Dr V K Paul said despite this new challenge, vaccination remains the most critical tool.

"We are fortunate that we have the tool (vaccination) in plenty and there is no doubt that coverage of vaccines has to increase. Look at the big picture, we have this tool and we must protect every eligible individual with this tool," he said.

"We are benefited by two doses and people should get the second dose as soon as possible. The decision on duration between doses is based on scientific data and local data in a systematic manner, and there is no change in the present duration," Paul said.

On breakthrough infections, he said, "We do not see any red flag in breakthrough infections, and we look into it periodically.

In the past, we have shown that breakthrough rates are very low and we will provide more information.

" On contact tracing approach of individuals detected with Omicron in India, Dr Sujeet Kumar Singh, Director, National Centre for Disease Control, said the government is tracing three types of contacts - primary, secondary and tertiary.

"Remote contacts are also being traced. It comes in the state government's domain and state surveillance officers are cooperating for it. In this case -- (two cases of Omicron) -- the primary, secondary and tertiary contacts have been traced," he said.

Explaining INSACOG's strategy, Singh said, "We have 289 sentinel sites and the samples, which we get from these sentinel sites, we do genomic sequencing on a weekly basis, and any super spreader events we find, clustering of cases, there we do genomic sequencing to ascertain if any new variant has emerged, the new dimension is the airport screening".

As of now, flights have come to nine airports, from where genome samples have been collected and tested, and 30 international airports have been sensitised about any travelling or in transit passengers coming from "at-risk" countries, he said.