‘Omicron’ is possibly already in India and it may be a matter of time before it’s detected, Dr Samiran Panda, head of Epidemiology at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), told NDTV. “The first case (of ‘Omicron’, the new Covid variant first found in South Africa) was reported on November 9 and there has been a lot of travel since then from South Africa,” he said, pointing out that there have been some symptomatic cases in these passengers as well.
“I won’t be surprised if there’s detection in India. It’s just a matter of time, given the high transmissibility that this variant comes with,” he added.
Dr Panda claims that India is well prepared, citing the example of the INSACOG laboratory network, a multi-laboratory, multi-agency, pan-India network set up by the government to monitor genomic variations in the SARS-CoV-2. Labs from across the country in this network are sent samples of Covid positive patients, which they study to determine the genetic makeup of the virus. This helps in identifying different strains of the virus. “They are adept at identifying the variants responsible for the infection,” he said.
Talking about prevention, he said that we must remember that vaccination does not prevent the acquisition of infection even if one has been double vaccinated. “If Covid appropriate behavior is not followed, one can always get infected. Masks, hand hygiene, and avoiding mass gatherings can help in prevention,” he said.
Stressing the need to understand that vaccines alone can’t help against this strain of the virus, he pointed out that they might help prevent severe disease, hospitalisation, and death but can’t prevent infections. Many experts have expressed concern over the transmissibility of the virus, said to be at least as much as the Delta variant that battered India. They worry that a large number of cases might overwhelm health infrastructure, and even if the cases are not severe it can still cause increased morbidity and mortality.
Responding to a question on booster shots, he said the public health priority should be to cover as many people as possible with double vaccination first. He indicated that those eligible for booster doses should ideally be able to get it but it shouldn’t come at the cost of diverting attention from the public health priority of fully vaccinating the entire population first.