Experts advise taking safe course in wake of Omicron variant

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India must increase the speed of vaccinating its population, roll out booster doses, especially for the immune-compromised, start vaccines for children and ensure that hospitals have enough capacity in wake of the anticipated infections with the Omicron variant, virologist Dr Sahid Jameel said on Friday. He advised people to get vaccinated, mask properly and avoid being in crowded spaces to prevent the risk of infection.

“The government should also bring down the gap between the two doses of Covishield vaccine to 12 weeks. This will not compromise the efficacy of the vaccine,” said Dr Jameel at a webinar organised by Ashoka University, Delhi, to discuss the new Omicron variant. “We no longer have any paucity of vaccine doses, so let’s reduce this gap,” he said.

Dr Jameel is a director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University. He is also the former head of the advisory group to the Indian SARS-COV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG).

India currently mandates a time gap of 12 to 16 weeks between two doses of Covishield developed by Astra-Zeneca and Oxford University. When the nationwide vaccination drive began in January, the government had mandated a four-to-six-week gap for the vaccine. In March, it was extended to six to eight weeks as evidence suggested better protection within this time interval. The Centre further extended the time gap to 12 to 16 weeks in May.

“It’s 12 to 16 weeks but most people are getting appointments only after 16 weeks. It should be made 12 weeks,” said Dr Jameel emphasising the need to prep health systems to face the anticipated surge in cases. He said that some early results have shown that vaccinated people drop their ability to neutralise the omicron variant by about 40 times.

“Unpublished reports from South Africa on Astra Zeneca vaccine, similar to India’s Covishield, also show a 40% drop in neutralising titers. I expect the same to happen in India, which essentially means that a lot more Indians are going to get re-infections. But then, they will not get a severe disease,” he said adding, “Looking at that scenario, we must create hospital capacity in advance. If a very large number of people get re-infections, then some of them will show up in hospitals. This should be a caution to various state health departments to be ready.”

According to Dr Jameel, India must start drafting the details on the booster policy, who will get the boosters first, which boosters should be given, the time limit among other things. “There is no need to shut down schools or implement lockdowns,” he said.

Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University who also spoke at the webinar said that the Omicron variant is worrisome going by the hypothesis over its origin and the early data on its transmissibility and infectious nature. “We will see some impact in the months to come, but it’s hard to say what that impact will be. We should be careful, we should do surveillance, we should do genome sequencing and we should be watchful for cases in the coming days,” he said.

Overall, the Omicron variant has been detected in 32 cases in the country, In India, seven cases have been detected in Maharashtra and two in Gujarat on Friday. The tally across states stands at 17 in Maharashtra, nine in Rajasthan, three in Gujarat, two in Karnataka, and one in Delhi. The Omicron variant, first reported in southern African countries last month, is thought to be at least four times as transmissible as the Delta variant, according to preliminary studies.

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