Well-known epidemiologist Jugal Kishore who is also Head of Community Medicine, Vardhman Mahavir Medical College & Safdarjung Hospital, is of the view that the South African variant might not cause any severe problem in India because a lot of people are already recovered from Covid-19.
However, he suggests that those who have not been infected in the past must take vaccines so that Omicron cannot cause much harm to them. In an interview with Outlook, Kishore also says that he is not surprised if the new variant might have arrived in India as our genome sequencing is inadequate. Excerpts: -
Do you think India has a big threat from the new South African variant Omicron?
I don’t think that we have a big threat from this new variant. It is because in our country a lot of people are already infected and recovered from Covid-19. If you remember the fourth sero prevalence done by the India Council of Medical Research, 60 to 70 people were found to be infected and recovered. In Delhi, 97 per cent of people were seropositive. These studies have indicated that a lot of people were already infected and we have seen that once a person recovers, there are very small chances of his reinfection irrespective of the mutation in the virus. So what I suggest is that we need to be cautious. There is no need to panic.
How can you say that the chances of reinfection are very low?
We have to go by the available epidemiological and clinical shreds of evidence of the behaviour of the virus. When the Alpha variant, which was the initial mutation in the Sars_Cov_2, had come, it infected a lot of people. When the Delta variant came, which was far more infectious than any other variants including Alpha, it did infect a large population, however, it couldn’t infect those who were recovered from previous variants. The reinfection rate was very low despite the fact that Delta was highly infectious. On the basis of this evidence, we can say that the chances are extremely low that Omicron will re-infect a population which is already recovered.
But don’t you think in our country there are still certain pockets where about 30 to 40 per cent of people are not infected by any variant. They are a naïve population. Don’t you think they have a threat?
Omicron is a threat to those people who were not infected in the past. Such people are in the remote part of the country. There are many villages where the virus hasn’t been able to penetrate. It is definitely a threat to them. Urban areas are largely safe because almost everyone has been exposed to the virus and have developed good antibody.
Do you think such people who have never been exposed to the virus must take vaccines?
Yes, such people must take vaccines. The vaccine will not stop the infection as we have seen that many vaccinated people have been infected. However, the biggest benefit of vaccination is that despite infection people don’t fall severely ill.
Now since this new variant has emerged, do you agree that genome sequencing should be increased to trace its presence in India?
Yes. I think we should focus on genome sequencing. South Africa conducts genome sequencing on a good number of samples and that’s the reason, this new variant has been traced so early. In our country, we have facilities and labs for genome sequencing but we are not sequencing an adequate number of samples. So we have no idea about the new variants. I am not surprised if Omicron might have reached India as well.
A lot of people from Kerala frequent countries like South Africa and the UAE. So it might be possible that Omicron infected people will be in India but we can only find out if we will do aggressive genome sequencing.
What preventive measures do you suggest?
I think we need to be quite vigilant at the airports and ports. As I said, people who have not been exposed to the virus must take vaccines. And no one-- vaccinated or naturally-recovered-- should feel that he is fully safe. So everyone needs to follow the appropriate Covid-19 protocol.