Though Omicron variant of coronavirus has become a concern for the whole world including India, Jammu and Kashmir is still in safe zone, with hardly any foreign traveller testing positive for this variant till now.
According to the official records, nearly 800 international travellers have been screened at Srinagar International Airport from the last 15 days and not a single traveller has tested positive for this variant or coronavirus.
Dr. Mir Mushtaq, Spokesperson Directorate of Health Services Kashmir (DHSK) told Rising Kashmir that Omicron is obviously a threat, new variants come with the newer challenges. “Covid is a threat, whichever variant is there, that should not concern the common people more. It should concern researchers, scientists, and doctors. Since the emergence of Covid-19 nothing has changed in terms of SOPs, treatment and vaccination,” he said.
Dr Mushtaq said that it’s the responsibility of common people to follow SOPs, wear masks, maintain hygiene and social distance, avoid gatherings and unnecessary travel.
“Following these things will definitely prove helpful for researchers, scientists and doctors to fight this virus. This virus will keep mutating but people should not worry about it, instead they should follow protocols and SOPs,” he said.
According to Dr. Mushtaq, the first line of defence is to wear a fit mask, “if people wear a mask, that means they are saving themselves from the ventilator. Face mask is always better than a ventilator mask.”
When asked whether second generation vaccination is needed to fight this variant, Dr Mushtaq said that scientists and researchers are already working on the Omicron strain of the virus. “There is National health and family welfare which is the research wing of the department. India is the largest vaccine producer of the world. So, when booster doses and new vaccination will be required, our country will do it. There shouldn't be any doubt about it. Whatever we have in hand, let us take that,” he said.
Dr. Mushtaq said that for the time being the government has advised two vaccinations. "Whenever they will come up with new strains of vaccination or booster doses, at that time people should come forward for it. Since the Omicron variant news came up, the directorate of health conducted some meetings with all the Medical Superintendents of the hospitals including CMOs,” DHSK spokesperson said.
He said that DHSK took a review of the hospital and the preparation and facilities like RT-PCR testing, arrangement of ventilators, and enough oxygen supplies.
Earlier this month, Divisional Commissioner (Div Com) Kashmir, Pandurang K Pole chaired a meeting to review the progress achieved in containment and mitigation of the possible threat from Omicron variant.
At the outset, the Div Com stressed for further intensifying the disease surveillance network with rigorous screening and follow-up of all the international travelers coming from all entry points to Kashmir division. He also designated a Nodal Officer for Surveillance of International travelers.
Pole stressed upon officers to personally visit the facilities which were made available in view of the Omicron variant. He also directed them to ensure that all the passengers with international travel history during past 14 days are subjected to RTPCR test and that they stay in the Administrative Quarantine till the reports of the test is available or they can also avail Rapid RTPCR test on paid mode which gives results within 3-4 hours.
The Director, Airport Authority of India in Srinagar Airport was directed to inform all the flight attendants/crew members for making necessary in-flight announcements in this regard for the information of all travelers.
Also, a “Covid-19 Help Desk” was placed at Srinagar International Airport to facilitate the international travelers for screening and testing for Covid-19.
J&K administration has also directed surveillance officers to ensure expedited genomic analysis through INSACOG genome sequencing labs. “The designated surveillance officers must establish close coordination with their designated/tagged INSACOG genome sequencing laboratories (IGSLs) for expediting results of genomic analysis,” read an order issued by chief secretary Arun Kumar Mehta, who is also the chairman of the state executive committee.
Mehta in his order said, “Samples of every Covid positive case shall be sent to the designated IGSLs promptly, as per the India SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) guidance document.”
Across India, at least 153 persons have tested positive for Omicron variant of coronavirus. According to central and state officials, Omicron cases have been detected in 11 states and union territories -- Maharashtra (54), Delhi (22), Rajasthan (17) and Karnataka (14), Telangana (20), Gujarat (11), Kerala (11), Andhra Pradesh (1), Chandigarh (1), Tamil Nadu (1) and West Bengal (1).
The Omicron variant was first detected in India in Bengaluru with two people testing positive for it comprising a South African national of Indian origin and a doctor.
Taking cognisance of the situation, India has introduced strict travel curbs and restrictions in a bid to avoid the spread of the virus. Many high-risk states are imposing stricter rules besides the Centre's guidelines to avoid any outbreak.
Dr Randeep Guleria, Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) earlier talking to Rising Kashmir had said that the Omicron variant of coronavirus is mutating fast and “there is a need to develop a second-generation vaccine to cover the new strain.”
He has said that the Omicron variant has over 50 mutations in the spike protein region. “Current vaccines offer reduced magnitude of protection against the newer variants of SARS-CoV 2. Immunologists are concerned about the possibility of accruing further mutations, which could render current vaccines less effective,”
Urging people not to panic, the doctor said that the available vaccines could be “tweaked” to overcome this problem.
“There are clinical trials which are looking at new vaccines which cover Delta and Beta strains. Trials are also going on for bivalent vaccine which covers more than two strains,” Dr. Guleria said.
Director AIIMS further said that COVID19 pandemic is not over, nor is it the last pandemic.“It is time to invest in pandemic prevention and preparedness. Social distancing and masks are still the most effective public health measures to halt the spread of new pandemic,” he said.
He said that vaccine hesitancy has become more common worldwide and was cited by the World Health Organization (WHO) as top 10 global health threats in 2019.
The AIIMS director said we need to develop a pandemic proof healthcare system. “We need to prioritise emergency services for non-COVID illness and defer only routine services during pandemic surge.”
According to WHO the Omicron variant of coronavirus is more transmissible than the Delta variant and reduces vaccine efficiency. The global health body arrived at this conclusion after analyzing the early data available on Omicron. The WHO, however, pointed out that the new COVID-19 strain caused less severe symptoms.
Citing early evidences, it said that the Omicron variant causes "a reduction in vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission."
The Omicron coronavirus variant, reported in more than 60 countries, poses a "very high" global risk, with some evidence that it evades vaccine protection but clinical data on its severity remain limited.
Considerable uncertainties surround Omicron, first detected last month in South Africa and Hong Kong, whose mutations may lead to higher transmissibility and more cases of COVID-19 disease, the WHO said in a technical brief.
"The overall risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron remains very high for a number of reasons," it said, reiterating its first assessment of Nov 29.
"And second, preliminary evidence suggests potential humoral immune escape against infection and high transmission rates, which could lead to further surges with severe consequences," the WHO said, referring to the virus' potential ability to evade immunity provided by antibodies.
The WHO cited some preliminary evidence that the number of people getting reinfected with the virus has increased in South Africa.
While preliminary findings from South Africa suggest that Omicron may be less severe than the Delta variant - currently dominant worldwide - and all cases reported in the Europe region have been mild or asymptomatic, it remains unclear to what extent Omicron may be inherently less virulent, it said.
The Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus will spread rapidly in India, according to a forecast by Juliet Pulliam, director of the South African DSI-NSF Centre for Excellence in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis.
Pulliam said that it would be wise to prepare for a worst-case scenario in terms of hospital planning.