New Delhi: India’s tally of the Omicron variant of Sars-Cov-2 touched 32 as nine new infections were reported in the country on Friday, but so far all of them have exhibited mild symptoms, senior health ministry officials said, adding that there was no immediate plan to authorise vaccine boosters.
On Friday, seven new cases of the heavily mutated variant were detected in Maharashtra and two more in Gujarat, local officials said. For the past three days, there had been no new case of the variant in the country.
“All Omicron positive cases have so far had mild symptoms,” said Lav Agarwal, joint secretary, Union ministry of health said, adding that close to 70 clusters are currently under investigation across India. Agarwal, who was addressing a media briefing early on Friday, said that till then there had been 25 cases of the variant in the country.
The new cases from Maharashtra were reported hours after the health ministry briefing.
Infections have now been reported in four states and one Union Territory – 17 in Maharashtra, nine in Rajasthan, three in Gujarat, two in Karnataka, and one in Delhi.
Officials, however, reiterated that the government’s focus remains on ensuring primary vaccination, and there was no recommendation yet from the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) on the booster doses.
“We are keeping an eye on global scientific studies. There is no stand of the World Health Organization (WHO) on booster doses… But WHO has clearly highlighted the need for completing primary vaccination as the most important priority and our view is also aligned with this. We have to first complete the task of vaccinating all individual with both doses,” said VK Paul, member (health), Niti Aayog.
When asked about vaccines for children, Paul said, “The team has been examining information coming from several sources in this regard… We do not have any recommendations on paediatric vaccination from them (NTAGI) as yet. They are examining it and other facets of vaccines.”
Paediatric vaccination is yet to begin in India, even though on August 20, the Drugs Controller General of India granted emergency use authorization to Zydus’ vaccine, ZyCoV-D. The vaccine has been tested, and approved for restricted use, in anyone aged 12 years and above.
Globally, at least 50 countries have begun giving doses to children. In most cases, children above the age of 12 are being inoculated. The shots being used for these ages are typically the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna doses – both have shown to be safe in children and their efficacy has been established.
The officials stressed that public adherence to Covid-appropriate behaviour, along with vaccination, remains the biggest weapons in the country’s arsenal against the viral outbreak.
“We have to remember that both vaccines and masks are important,” Paul emphasised.
“WHO recently pointed that public health and social measures compliance is declining with increase in vaccination rates. There is no need to panic, rather adherence to Covid appropriate behaviour is a must even for the fully vaccinated persons,” said Agarwal. “WHO has also shown that laxity in public health measures is leading to a surge in overall cases,” he added.
Head of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said that, clinically, the variant, which was detected in India on December 2 after being first identified in South Africa on November 8, does not pose a serious threat for now.
“Clinically, Omicron as yet is not posing a burden on health care system; however, vigil has to be maintained. Regular meetings are being organised to examine and keep a watch on the global scenario; and regulator meetings are being held to examine the Covid scene in India, with focus on Omicron,” said Balram Bhargava, director general, ICMR.
Much remains unknown about Omicron. After being detected in early November, it was labelled as a variant of concern (VOC) by WHO on November 26. Dozens of countries have imposed travel restrictions on southern African nations since it was discovered.
Officials also said that at least 70 clusters are under close watch for Omicron across India.
“We are watching and investigating more than 70 such clusters, even though by and large it looks like the Delta variant is in circulation there. But we have to be careful and vaccination is the key to reduce risk of severe disease. Extremely crucial to take both the doses along with adhering to Covid-appropriate behaviour,” Bhargava added.
On November 27, a day after the declaration of Omicron as a VOC by WHO, states across were advised to increase surveillance at airports, increase testing and continue monitoring hot spots, Agarwal said. The aggressive screening of international passengers, especially from ‘at-risk’ countries was made effective from December 1 with 58,469 passengers arriving in India from 298 international flights from ‘at risk’ countries being tested on arrival, of which 83 tested positive for Covid-19.
As on date, 2,936 Omicron cases have been detected from 59 countries, with 78,064 Covid positive cases being under investigation. The most Omicron cases have been reported from the United Kingdom, Denmark and South Africa.
Union health ministry is also conducting meetings with all states and senior people involved in pandemic management on a daily basis to ensure all measures are put in place appropriately to prevent and stop the spread of the disease, especially with the new variant that suspected to be highly transmissible.
According to experts it is important keep the testing momentum up to ensure the disease does not spread aggressively. “5% and above test positivity means that disease is in circulation and testing and isolating positive case early is the only way to stop the disease from spreading within the community,” said Jacob John, former virology head, Christian Medical College, Vellore (Tamil Nadu).