The Omicron COVID-19 strain is believed to be more infectious than the Delta variant (File)

New Delhi:
Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan met with senior state and UT officials today and urged them to ramp up Covid testing rates, as cases of the ‘Omicron’ strain – which the WHO has said poses a “very high” risk – are reported globally.

Here are the top 10 points in this big story:

  1. The Omicron strain – first detected in South Africa and reported from over a dozen countries since, including the UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Hong Kong – has not yet been reported in India, government officials were quoted by news agency PTI after today’s meeting.

  2. However, yesterday, Dr Samiran Panda, Head of Epidemiology at the ICMR (the government’s nodal body in the pandemic), told NDTV: “I won’t be surprised if there’s detection in India. It’s just a matter of time, given the high transmissibility that this variant comes with.”

  3. Omicron does not (at this time) escape detection from existing tests, including the cheaper and faster antigen tests. States and UTs have been urged scale up testing for early identification and management of cases. They have also been told to augment health infrastructure and home isolation, as well as focus on containment and surveillance, and widening of vaccine coverage.

  4. Last week Mr Bhushan wrote to state and UTs to stress on rigorous surveillance of international passengers and ensure the prompt dispatch of samples for genome sequencing. “This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations… has serious public health implications for the country…” he said.

  5. During this morning’s meeting the Health Secretary underlined the importance of that order, and the government also said Covid-positive samples of people returning from ‘at risk’ countries be sent to designated genome sequencing labs (part of the INSACOG network).

  6. Also last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a review meeting with senior officials (including Mr Bhushan) and Dr VK Paul, the head of India’s Covid task force. The PM asked officials to review plans to ease restrictions on international travel. This was a day after the Aviation Ministry said scheduled international passenger flights could resume December 15.

  7. Countries designated by the Health Ministry as ‘at-risk” (updated November 26) include the United Kingdom and mainland Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel.

  8. Across the country, state and UT governments have begun tightening rules and restrictions in the face of the Omicron threat. Covid-positive cases have been reported in travellers returning from countries where Omicron is present, but the strain of the virus has not yet been confirmed.

  9. The Omicron strain – first identified as B.1.1.529 and now designated a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO – is believed to have 50+ mutations, including over 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of current vaccines and is what the virus uses to unlock access to our body’s cells. Researchers are still determining if this is more lethal, and if current vaccines protect against it.

  10. US drugmaker Moderna set off fresh alarm bells today after the firm’s chief warned that existing vaccines are unlikely to be as effective against Omicron as they have been against Delta. Another US pharma giant, Pfizer, has said it has begun working on a variant of its vaccine to counter Omicron. Neither the Moderna nor the Pfizer jab is in India, where Covishield and Covaxin are in use. The Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech have not yet commented on this issue.

With input from PTI

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