Dealing with Omicron

Updated on: Dec 09, 2021
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India should counter the new Covid strain with a mix of caution, preparation and sobriety

Omicron, the latest Covid strain which appears to have spread from South Africa to 57 or more countries in a matter of less than a month since it was discovered, is certainly a ‘variant of concern’, as the WHO has said. The spike in Covid cases in South Africa from about 200 a day in mid-November to over 10,000 now, seems to be Omicron-driven. The most important question arising over this heavily mutated avatar of SARS-CoV2, besides its being very infectious, is whether it is as debilitating as the Delta variant. Initial reports from South Africa, India and the rest of the world suggest that its symptoms are mild. The numbers turning up at hospitals are manageable; among those hospitalised the numbers requiring intensive care too have been few. It is also true that the unvaccinated seem to dominate the hospitalisation cases. But as some epidemiologists point out, these are early days, as the virus has begun its journey with the young who are socially and physically active. Its behaviour with the elderly and those with co-morbidities is less known — although the WHO has said that vaccination will blunt the severity of disease, despite the virus’s capacity to break through the natural immunity barrier. In fact, what is apparent is Omicron’s tendency to reinfect people, even if mildly. But, on balance, it appears that it may not cause the havoc that Delta did.

For one, vaccination rates across the world have gone up, and quite rapidly in India since the second wave. Second, in India, hybrid immunity— stemming from the virus and vaccines — may ward off severe disease, even if reinfection cases rise. But to this, there is a caveat. If the absolute numbers of infected goes up exponentially, hospitalisation numbers will rise as well even if they are a very small proportion. The vulnerable groups could do with access to new forms of treatment being developed elsewhere, such as monoclonal antibodies. Health infrastructure needs to be in a state of preparedness. The response to Omicron should be level-headed — steering clear of panic without being cavalier or indifferent.

Any decision to administer booster shots or to vaccinate children should be taken in a considered manner and be driven by scientific evidence, rather than panic or by vaccine lobbies. As the WHO has said, there is no evidence to suggest that primary doses have run out of steam. India has still fully vaccinated just 50 per cent of its eligible population. The objective should be to vaccinate the remaining eligible population on a war footing, while considering frontline workers who got their shots early this year for boosters. Alongside, there should be no let-up on wearing masks and social distancing, both of which have been given the go-by. Large events should be disallowed. India cannot risk such super-spreaders amidst an economic recovery. It needs to strike a balance between securing its economy and the health of its population. Globally, vaccine inequity is a scandal. It could have fanned the spread of Omicron in Africa.

Published on December 09, 2021

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