Govt admits Omicron likely behind the rise in COVID cases in India

Rising COVID cases in India (weekly data)

For the first time, a key government official has said that the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus is likely behind the sudden increase in COVID cases seen in the last 4-5 days, without giving details.

“We believe what we’re witnessing could be part of the global surge in cases pushed by the Omicron variant,” said VK Paul, member of Policy Commission — the official think-tank of the government of India. He said the government will release related scientific data on the above in due course.

“It will take some time for us to recognize and identify the variant. But we believe this push is part of the global upsurge related to Omicron. We will continue to update you on the specifics,” he added.

This is the first time any high-ranking government official has admitted that Omicron is in community transmission in India.

So far, the government has been working on the hypothesis that Omicron is not in community transmission within India. As such, it has been screening air travelers from Omicron-hit countries such as South Africa and the UK and isolating them and their contacts if they test positive for the new variant.

Asked whether such measures make sense any more, Dr Paul indicated such efforts can help slow the transmission of the Omicron variant in India.

Reacting to a different question, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health, Luv Agarwal clarified that Omicron has not overtaken Delta as the dominant variant in the country yet. He, however, did not reveal the exact percentage of Omicron cases in the total. Omicron went from accounting for only single digit percentages of the total cases to more than half in less than a week in countries such as the US and the UK.

Instead of focusing on the numbers, the officials urged citizens not to panic and exercise more caution while redoubling efforts to protect themselves from the virus.

“Whatever the strain, our tools are the same. Hence, we should focus on masking, physical distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene,” Luv Agarwal said.

BOOSTER DOSES

Meanwhile, there is little certainty about the efficacy of booster doses.

Neutralization tests conducted by independent scientists, in which Omicron virus is introduced into blood collected from vaccinated individuals, have shown that nearly all vaccines are more or less completely useless in neutralizing or killing the new virus.

However, some of the vaccine makers, such as Pfizer, have claimed that their tests have shown material neutralization capability in the blood of those who have taken extra shots of their vaccines. As such, these vaccine makers have urged people to take more and more doses of their vaccines.

Given the uncertainty about the actual utility of the so-called booster shots, India is yet to take a call on whether to start booster vaccination for its citizens, unlike countries such as the US and the UK. A final call on this will be taken by Jan 10, officials said today.

For now, they reiterated that people should focus on tried-and-tested methods such as wearing masks and social distancing.

“Vaccine is there, but it is inside you. For the virus to reach inside the body, it has to pass through the mask. So mask, mask, mask. It is even more important today,” reminded Dr VK Paul.

“Whatever the strain, our tools are the same,” Luv Agarwal said. “Hence, we should focus on masking, physical distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene.”

THIRD WAVE

Dr VK Paul also responded to repeated questions about whether India is now seeing the start of the third wave.

The country has seen a sharp increase in the number of new COVID cases, with a near 50% jump seen in the latest daily tally compared to the day before (see charts).

Daily new cases have jumped to the 13,000-plus range from around 6,500 levels a week ago.

Dr Paul refused to sound despondent, and said whether the current surge is the beginning of the long-feared third wave or not depends on the precautions that people take.

“Where it will lead us is in our hands. Our effort is to suppress it as it stands,” he said.