India will review its plan to ease international travel restrictions after a new variant of Sars-CoV-2 triggered global alarm. Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed top officials at a meeting lasting over two hours on Saturday to be “proactive in light of the new threat”.
The World Health Organization on Friday designated a new variant of concern, classifying it as Omicron after early analysis of case trends and labs tests in South Africa threw up strong signals that it could be a more serious threat than the Delta variant, which has triggered devastating waves in several countries.
“The PM highlighted the need for monitoring all international arrivals, their testing as per guidelines, with a specific focus on countries identified ‘at risk’. The PM also asked officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the emerging new evidence,” the government said in a statement.
Modi stressed on the need to be proactive to monitor the new threat and “intensive containment and active surveillance should continue in clusters reporting higher cases,” the statement said.
“People need to more cautious and take proper precautions like masking and social distancing,” the statement quoted Modi as saying.
Modi’s directive comes a day after the aviation ministry announced a conditional resumption of scheduled international flights to and from India from December 15, after 20 months of a coronavirus-induced suspension.
Countries such as the UK, Germany, Singapore, Israel, France and Italy have restricted air travel from southern Africa, where the cases of new coronavirus variant of serious health implications have been reported.
On Friday, as fears grew of the pandemic being fanned afresh, commodity and stock markets around the world took their worst dive this year.
Multiple Indian states announced they were stepping up vigil on international arrivals on their own.
Maharashtra announced penalties on people for not following Covid-appropriate behaviour (CAB) and said its health ministry was collaborating with civic agencies to increase surveillance of international travellers who are meant to follow quarantine rules. The state also mandated RT-PCR tests for visitors, a step also taken by Kerala, while Karnataka said it has stepped up airport screening.
The UK on Saturday became the latest country to confirm infections of the new variant among two people who had travelled to southern Africa. Countries elsewhere on the continent also are investigating suspected cases. Belgium confirmed one, a regional official in Germany said it’s “highly likely” the strain arrived there, the Netherlands is researching 61 new infections, and the Czech Republic is examining a suspected case.
A day earlier, Hong Kong and Israel confirmed they had detected the new variant on their soil.
During the meeting held on Saturday, officials told Modi they are following a facilitative approach to newer pharmaceutical products.
Modi instructed officials to coordinate with states to ensure adequate buffer stocks of various medicines and asked them to work with the states to review the functioning of medical infrastructure, including paediatric facilities, the government statement added.
He also called for genome sequencing of samples from international travellers and community as per norms.
The meeting was attended by cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba, Niti Aayog member (health) VK Paul, home secretary AK Bhalla, health secretary Rajesh Bhushan, Indian Council of Medical Research chief Balram Bhargava, principal scientific adviser K. Vijay Raghavan and several other officials.
“The new Omicron variant seems to be worse than Delta; at least from the preliminary data, we will get more details soon. There are two things that we need to do now – one, prevent importation of a case, and two, build better immune defence so that even if the virus does start circulating, deaths are minimised,” said Dr Jacob John, former head of the department of virology at Christian Medical College-Vellore.
“Now, how do we do that? There is no need to ban travel to prevent importation. Rather, ask people to declare all the countries that they have touched in the last, say, 10 days. Those who have been to South Africa or other countries that already have Omicron cases must be mandatorily tested at the airport, put under strict 48-hour quarantine at a hotel, re-test and then be allowed to leave. 72 hours would be better. Anyhow, we may not be able to prevent importation even then, but we have to try,” he added.
Dr John said the government must now allow booster doses. “The changes in the viral genome suggest that it might be able to evade immunity to a certain extent. And, even though a huge proportion of people did get infected during the second wave, we do not know who is protected and who is not. Why take chances? If the virus escapes immunity, we should hyper-immunise and build a higher wall,” he said.
“There is still a huge population – those under the age of 18 years – who by criteria are not eligible to be vaccinated. We should now start immunising them or the virus will circulate among them. The new variant may very well not be as dangerous as it seem, but till we know we must plug all gaps,” he added.
The Omicron variant, also known as B.1.1.529, was first spotted on November 12 and is being believed to have led to a surge in cases in multiple African regions, including South Africa’s Guateng province, where the test positivity rate rose from 1% to over 30% within three weeks. The genomic sequence of the variant shared by South African experts showed it has 32 mutations — for the first time, two of these mutations are in what is known as the receptor-binding domain, the portion of the pathogen responsible for entry into human cells.