Ominous signs as virus mutates into a more threatening form

M Somasekhar

Nearly two years after its first confirmed reports, the SARS-COV-2 that has so far affected 261, 398, 577 people and killed 5, 213, 544 continues to mutate and mount challenges to healthcare. The latest version named as Omicron, poses a more serious threat, warns the WHO.

The new variant has been detected in Africa. Reports indicate that it is spreading fast with Germany, Britain, Australia and Italy already confirming cases. The WHO has called for enhanced surveillance terming it a Variant of Concern (VoC). The original COVID-19 virus was first detected in China in December 2019.

The Omicron or B.1.1.529 variant was first found in Botswana. Then in quick succession in South Africa and Hong Kong. It is being considered the most significant so far among the various mutations of the COVID-19. One immediate reason cited by scientists is the large number of spike mutations that could affect transmissibility and immune response. Which, in simpler terms mean challenging the available vaccines and drugs.

MS Education Academy

The Indian government quickly responded with steps to review lifting international travel restrictions intended in early December. With the disaster wrecked by the ‘Second Wave’ and the Modi Government caught napping for weeks during April-June, the PM urgently reviewed the situation with top officials and called for appropriate steps within the country and testing international travellers from all countries identified as ‘at risk’.

Ominous Signs

On top of this external threat ominous warning signals are emerging within the country from different states in the last week. For example, the Mahindra University in Hyderabad was forced to shut down its campus after 30 infections were reported from the students and staff.

Similarly, in Odisha over 70 cases have been reported in two educational institutions. In Karnataka, new clusters are surfacing in Mysuru, Dharwad and Bengaluru. The SDM College of Medical Sciences and Hospital in Dharwad reported 180 cases.

As on date official figures put the total number of COVID-19 cases in India at 3,45,72,523. The number of deaths is 4,68, 554. The daily infection figures across the country have been below 20,000 for more than 50 days. The active cases are hovering around one lakh, the lowest since March 2020, as per the Union Ministry of Health data.

The Vaccination Concerns

While India could rightly Pat itself for completing 100 crore doses of vaccination, the overall coverage of the population, especially both doses continues to be challenging and cause for concern. As on November 27, the country’s organised vaccination drive has covered 121.94 crore doses. Of these, the percentage of fully vaccinated (both doses) stood at approximately 32 percent. The states and union territories have a stock of 22.83 crore doses to be administered.

However, a point of worry has been the slowdown of the pace of vaccination. From a minimum required of giving one crore plus jabs per day, the average is hovering around 70 lakh in the epistle several weeks.

This implies that with a target of giving 200 crore jabs, India will take at least another 3 months to reach the target at the current speed. Given, the fact that there are breakthrough infections and questions on the period of protection provided by the existing vaccines, the people in the vulnerable and high risk zone continue to be in significant numbers. The spread of Omicron can only make matters worse.

The comforting factor on the vaccination front is the availability of vaccines and the systematic ramping up of production by both the Serum Institute of India (SII), the producer of Covishield and Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin. In the country there are six vaccines available—Covaxin, Covishield, Sputnik V, Zydus Cadila, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Events, festivals and marriages

The ‘Deep scars’ left by the devastating second wave on the population and exposure of the woeful inadequacies of the healthcare infrastructure remain fresh. Consequently, the anticipation of a potential Third Wave has made the governments to pro actively issue guidelines and precautions to be taken on a regular basis.

But, the worries on the slipping economy, loss of jobs and livelihood pushed up the activities in almost all sectors in the past quarter. In some areas like travel, tourism and e commerce there has been frenzy too. The festival season has seen a spike in spending from people, dramatic increase in footfalls in shopping places and business activity.

The steady decline in COVID-19 cases over the last 3 months to less than 20,000 per day and the growth in vaccination per day have emboldened people. Some of the manifestations have been the rapid increase in large gatherings during festivals, official meetings and private engagements. In some states universities and colleges have opted for physical classes. The Telangana Government has also asked IT companies to restart office operations in Hyderabad, especially Cyberabad.

The worrying manifestation is the visible doing away with the wearing of masks in public places, shrinking social distance practise and slowing down of pace of vaccination and in some cases missing the second dose too. In terms of preparedness on the public healthcare infrastructure front too, though there has been progress, it’s definitely far from adequate to handle a potential third wave, warn experts.

There is also an increasing section of doctors and Pharma companies, which are advocating a booster dose citing research feedback of waning protection from the two doses, post a window of six months. This raises the scale of vulnerability in the Indian population by a huge factor given that the vaccination began from March 2021.

Finally, if the positive news is the development of the first DNA based vaccine for children by Zydus Cadila and the Covaxin for 12-18 also given emergency authorisation use by the Drug Controller, the availability in the market and drive to vaccinate the youth remains the daunting task.

Overall, the warning note sounded by WHO on Omicron, with the multitude of risk factors that the population across India has been exposed to in the past few months and continues to, ‘Precaution, following of protocols, accelerated vaccination and beefing up public healthcare to meet any eventuality to the best’ remains the only and best option for India as the year draws to an end.

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad

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