Omicron Not Yet In India, States Told To Scale Up Testing: Government

The Omicron COVID-19 strain is believed to be more infectious than the Delta variant (File)

New Delhi:
Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan met with senior state and UT officials today and urged them to ramp up Covid testing rates, as cases of the ‘Omicron’ strain – which the WHO has said poses a “very high” risk – are reported globally.

Here are the top 10 points in this big story:

  1. The Omicron strain – first detected in South Africa and reported from over a dozen countries since, including the UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Hong Kong – has not yet been reported in India, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya told Parliament.

  2. “No case of COVID-19 variant Omicron has been reported in India so far,” Mr Mandaviya said in the Rajya Sabha, adding, “We are immediately checking suspicious cases and conducting genome sequencing. We learnt a lot…Today, we have a lot of resources and laboratories. We can manage any situation,” the minister said.

  3. Yesterday, Dr Samiran Panda, Head of Epidemiology at the ICMR, sounded a warning, telling NDTV: “I won’t be surprised if there is detection in India. It’s just a matter of time, given the high transmissibility this variant comes with.”

  4. Omicron does not (at this time) escape detection from existing tests, including the cheaper and faster antigen tests. States and UTs have been urged scale up testing for early identification and management of cases. They have also been told to augment health infrastructure and home isolation, as well as focus on containment and surveillance, and widening of vaccine coverage.

  5. States and UTs were advised not to let their guard down, and they were reminded of the government’s mantra – ‘test, track, treat, and vaccinate’. They have also been advised to keep a strict lookout for and focus on emerging clusters and hotspots.

  6. Last week Mr Bhushan wrote to stress on rigorous surveillance of international passengers (specifically those arriving from ‘at risk’ countries) and ensure the prompt dispatch of samples for genome sequencing. “This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations… has serious public health implications…” he said.

  7. Today the Health Secretary underlined the importance of that order, and the government also said Covid-positive samples of people returning from ‘at risk’ countries be sent to designated genome sequencing labs (part of the INSACOG network). ‘At-risk’ countries are those in Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel.

  8. State and UTs have begun tightening restrictions. Covid-positive cases have already been reported in travellers from countries where Omicron is present, but the strain has not yet been confirmed. Airports have begun prepping for large-scale testing starting tomorrow. PM Narendra Modi called for a review on easing of international restrictions.

  9. The Omicron strain – designated a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO – is believed to have 50+ mutations, including over 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of current vaccines and is what the virus uses to unlock access to our body’s cells. Researchers are still determining if this is more lethal, and if current vaccines protect against it.

  10. Moderna set off fresh alarm bells today after it said existing vaccines may not be as effective against Omicron as against Delta. Pfizer is working on a variant of its vaccine. Neither jab is in India though, where Covishield and Covaxin are in use. The Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech have not yet commented on this issue.

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