Omicron, a new Covid variant said to be “highly transmissible”, has spread to at least 59 countries. In India, as the new variant sparks fresh worry over a third wave, WHO Regional Director for South East Asia, Dr Poonam Khetrapal, says, “A new variant doesn’t mean that things will be worse, but definitely, they will be more uncertain.”
“The pandemic is still around. The risk of COVID-19 remains high globally in view of the surge being witnessed in other parts of the world, and the emergence of new variants,” she explained.
In an exclusive conversation with NDTV, she warned, “In the South Asia region, we must not let out guard down. We must continue to strengthen surveillance, public health, and social measures, and rapidly scale up vaccination coverage.”
India has recorded 33 Omicron cases so far, and five states have been affected. The government has warned against laxity – avoiding the usage of masks and delaying vaccination.
As countries across the world bring in new restrictions to contain the spread of Omicron, Dr Khetrapal today explained, “Certain features of Omicron, including its global spread and a large number of mutations, could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic. Exactly what impact it will be a little difficult to know. To help build a clearer picture, the WHO has called on countries to submit more data. Thousands of experts have been convened to analyze the data.”
Studies are underway to evaluate Omircon’s transmissibility, severity, reinfection risk among other factors, the top official said.
“Emerging data from South Africa shows increased reinfection risk from Omicron. But we need more to draw more conclusions. There is also some evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than Delta. But it’s too early to be definitive.”
Existing diagnostics, both PCR and antigen-based rapid tests work against the Covid virus and its variants, the WHO has repeatedly insisted.
What do the nations need to do at this time? Surveillance and genome sequencing have to be the focus for the countries to check the spread, the WHO official insists, adding that “initial cases and clusters must be reported.”
“It is also important to monitor pressure on the healthcare system like the number of beds. Comprehensive, tailored and timely public health and social measures must continue to contain transmission. The earlier the measures are implemented, the less restrictive they need to be effective. All efforts to scale up vaccination must continue,” Dr Khetrapal stressed.