Preparing for Omicron

| Updated on: Dec 26, 2021
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Opening up vaccinations to adolescents and boosters for the elderly are timely moves

From the standpoint of Covid management, this was an eventful Christmas. On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the opening up of vaccinations for adolescents in the 15-18 age group, while allowing frontline and health workers, as well as senior citizens with co-morbidities to take a “precautionary” third shot. On the same day, the Drugs Controller General's office cleared the approval of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin for children above 12 years, subject to conditions — which, however, need to be spelt out. These moves are well timed. India’s fight against Covid is at an inflexion point, with the second wave having receded and signs of the exceptionally contagious Omicron whipping up a third wave, if corrective steps are not taken. The Prime Minister has taken the right call in sounding caution over Omicron, despite reports that its health outcomes are not severe. In keeping with the PM’s advise to stay alert but refrain from panic, it is hoped that States do not resort to knee-jerk decisions on lockdowns if cases do balloon, as they're expected to. The best way of balancing normal activities and caution is to urgently vaccinate the entire population.

Vaccinating at least 30 crore children (paediatrics and adolescents), apart from covering the remaining 39 per cent of the adult population of about 38 crore which has not got its second jab, should be the top priority. While schools can turn into virus hotspots, the way out is to vaccinate children and treat teachers as frontline workers, and not close schools. As virologist T Jacob John has said in a recent interview to this newspaper, children should be vaccinated on priority to slow down transmission. At present, Zydus Cadila’s ZyCoV-D and Covaxin have been cleared for adolescent use (12 years and above). Regulatory approval for vaccination of the paediatric population is awaited, as trials are still on. The Subject Expert Committee should exercise due diligence in view of reports of adverse effects among children in the US. Experts have noted that inactivated-virus vaccines are safe. The vaccines in the reckoning for children and adolescents, apart from Covaxin and ZyCoV-D, are those produced by Serum Institute (Covovax), Sputnik and Johnson & Johnson.

At present, the monthly production of vaccines is over 30 crore doses, primarily made up by Covishield (25-27 crore doses) and Covaxin (five to six crore). On latest count, nearly 18 crore doses remain unutilised with the States, even as vaccination in 11 States rules below the national average. While the output scenario is comfortable, Covaxin doses should be increased to cater to the below-18 age group, even as other candidates are evaluated. An inventory on State-wise vaccine use will curb wastage. The Prime Minister’s stress on the levels of preparation in terms of hospital beds, oxygen plants and ICU beds indicates a better level of preparation than last time around. Meanwhile, authorities should enforce wearing of masks outdoors, and social distancing norms strictly in public places. Large gatherings should be discouraged. India is well prepared, but these are early days.

Published on December 26, 2021

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