Eminent virologist and former head of the advisory group to the Indian SARS-COV-2 Genomics Consortia (INASACOG), Shahid Jameel spoke to Outlook about the new Covid variant Omicron and its implications
There is widespread panic after WHO declared Omicron to be a variant of concern. What do we know about Omicron?
We know that the new variant Omicron has overall 50 mutations and it possesses more than 30 mutations in the spike protein area. Cases from South Africa shows that the variant is more transmissible. But we still know very little about how virulent the virus is and the severity of illness it causes. A doctor from South Africa said that patients suspected of contracting the new variant have shown only mild symptoms. Scientists are working to assess the nature of the variant and we will have to wait a few more weeks to get a clear picture. Any course of action will be based on data on the new variant.
There is speculation that the new variant may evade vaccine acquired immunity. The question in everyone’s mind is how much protection can vaccines give against Omicron?
What we are hearing now is mostly speculation. It has been said that the new variant evades vaccine immunity. The likely scenario will be vaccination efficacy may be reduced but it may not be zero. I will say that getting vaccinated is the best method of protection against any variant.
The Central Government has taken various steps as precautionary measures including new travel guidelines for international travellers. Is that enough?
The Health Ministry guidelines say that passengers coming from ‘countries at-risk' like South Africa will have to undergo an RT-PCR test after reaching India. They will have to wait for results at the airport and if anyone is found positive will be quarantined and the samples will be sent for genome sequencing. The wait for RT-PCR at the airport is harsh on people. Thousands of people waiting at the airport will lead to chaos. It will also disrupt passenger’s plans. The administration should put tracking mechanisms in place after the RT-PCR test is done. That will solve the hassle of waiting at the airport for results.
Omicron has been circulating in South Africa since November 11. Many countries such as Germany and Australia also have reported cases of the new variant. India is no exception. We need to have rigorous surveillance methods against the variant.
As other countries are scrambling to curb the spread of the variant, what more steps should India take immediately?
I think the government has taken some steps in the right direction. However, more action should be taken at two levels—first on policy level and second on public awareness.
As I mentioned earlier, there has to be better tracking and contact tracing systems. At the policy level, India needs to speed up vaccination. An area of concern is that a large chunk of the population is yet to be fully vaccinated. Only 31. 3 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in the country and 56.6 percent of the population has received a single dose of vaccine till now. People should be urged to take a second dose of vaccine. India doesn’t have a shortage of vaccines and our strategy should be to ramp up the vaccine drive.
With the new variant in the air, the debate on the need for booster shots is also gaining currency. Should we go for booster shots?
We don’t need booster shots now. We don’t have to think of booster shots, unless the country vaccinates 90 per cent of its population. Our focus should be on expanding vaccine coverage. Also, we need data from more countries on who needs booster shots. We can also think of reducing the gap of vaccine doses which is 12 weeks now.
Many experts point out that lack of genomic sequencing is the reason for the spread of the Delta variant during the second wave. Are we now doing enough genome sequencing to identify new mutations?
I think that now we are doing enough genomic sequencing of samples.
There is a fear of a third wave with the new variant on prowl..
People are panicking without following Covid-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)s. There are reports of crowding in markets and other places. People have to follow measures such as wearing masks, physical distance among others. There is a significant dip in daily cases Covid-19 cases in India. ICMR’s latest Sero prevalence survey showed that at least 70 per cent Indians have developed antibodies. A Sero survey in Delhi showed that 97 percent of people were positive for antibodies in October. The government has to make guidelines of wearing masks and social distancing until we get more details on the new variant.
What will be your advice for the public?
If you are yet to be vaccinated, please go out and vaccinate yourself. To reduce the risk of contacting Covid-19, one has to stick to protocols such as wearing masks, physical distancing, ventilation of indoor spaces and avoiding crowded spaces. When schools are reopening, parents and the adults in schools should be fully vaccinated. People should also ensure that their maids and drivers are also vaccinated.