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Omicron: Can India afford a new COVID surge?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
November 30, 2021

India is pulling out all the stops to avoid a repeat of the devastating wave of delta-fueled infections earlier this year, by ramping up testing while stepping up screening and surveillance of international travelers.

People shop at a crowded roadside vegetable market in Gujarat state after authorities eased coronavirus restrictions
After India battled a record jump in infections in April and May, cases have come down substantially Image: AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

As global concerns rise over SARS-CoV-2's omicron variant, Indian authorities are putting in place measures to prevent the newly discovered form of the coronavirus from gaining a foothold in the country.    

From Wednesday, India will make on-arrival COVID-19 RT-PCR testing mandatory for fliers from all countries identified as "at-risk" regardless of their vaccination status, the Health Ministry said.

This includes all arrivals from Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel.

Passengers who test positive will be isolated and treated as per government health protocols and their samples sent for genome sequencing.

Those with a negative test result will be allowed to exit the airport but have to be in home quarantine for seven days, followed by another RT-PCR test on the eighth day after arrival, which will then be followed by seven days of self-monitoring.

Additionally, 5% of all travelers from countries deemed not at-risk will be randomly tested, the ministry added.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also asked officials to review a decision to resume all scheduled international flights from December 15.

At present, only special flights as per bilateral or other agreements are flying.

More testing and COVID-appropriate behavior

India has not reported any omicron cases yet but authorities are studying the sample of a man who tested positive for COVID-19 after recently returning from South Africa to see if he is infected with the omicron or another variant.

"We need higher vigilance now as we don't know how the variant behaves and whether it is going to be more infectious. There is now the necessity to reinstate coronavirus-appropriate behavior, which is an absolute must. Social gatherings must be very restricted," NK Arora, chairman of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group, told DW.

On Tuesday, the Federal Health Ministry called on state governments to ramp up testing, saying that the new variant "doesn't evade RT-PCR and RAT [testing]."

The statement eased some concerns among health workers that changes in the spike protein of the virus could lead to conventional tests failing to detect the variant.

Much is still not known about the omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa last week.

Still, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the global risk from the variant is "very high."

There are growing fears that it could be more contagious than the other variants circulating worldwide, although there are signs it may cause a milder disease than initially feared.

Still many unknowns about omicron

It's still not clear whether omicron will be able to evade immunity achieved through current COVID vaccines or infection by other variants. 

"Data is still being gathered from populations to assess omicron's potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections," K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, told DW.

Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, shares a similar view.

"We're still at a stage where our information regarding the new variant is still fragmentary. Hopefully we will be in a better position to project what might happen in the future a week or more from now," he told DW.

It is for this reason that public health officials are bolstering genome sequencing efforts with the help of the Indian SARs-COV-2 Genomics Consortium, or INSACOG, hoping that early detection of the newly emerged variant will help avoid a repeat of the devastating second virus wave that brought the country's health system to its knees earlier this year.

"As we wait for definitive evidence, our new mantra should be masks, ventilation, vaccines and testing," Reddy stressed.

India fears 'lost' COVID generation

'Better prepared after the delta variant surge'

Since India battled a record jump in infections and deaths in April and May, cases have come down substantially in the world's second most populous nation.

Its COVID-19 cases rose by 6,990 on Tuesday — the smallest increase in 551 days — to 34.59 million. Only the United States has reported more total infections.

"Though we are better prepared after the deadly delta variant surge in April and May, the focus now will be on intensive containment, surveillance, enhanced testing, monitoring of hotspots, increased coverage of vaccination and augmentation of health infrastructure," a senior health official told DW.

Vineeta Bal, a scientist at the National Institute of Immunology, said that India will likely not witness a repeat of what happened when delta hit the country with full force earlier this year.

Given the nation's vaccination drive and the high number of people who have already recovered from an infection, the risk of severe disease or death from omicron infection would likely be low, she said. 

"Because the panic button has been hit, I suspect infrastructure for hospitalization will gear up to whatever needs to be done and the ability is likely to be better than when delta spread widely."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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