Another muted New Year's Eve as Covid tally continues to rise

Published on Dec 31, 2021 10:46 PM IST

According to officials, the Omicron variant is now in community transmission in many cities, a conclusion also corroborated by genome surveillance trends.

A Delhi Police personnel puts in place barricades at the entrance of Hauz Khas village in New Delhi on New Year’s eve on Friday. (Amal K S/HT photo)
A Delhi Police personnel puts in place barricades at the entrance of Hauz Khas village in New Delhi on New Year’s eve on Friday. (Amal K S/HT photo)

New Delhi: India rang in a muted New Year at midnight on Saturday as the number of new cases in several parts of the country continued on a sharp rise, with officials saying the Omicron variant is now in community transmission in many cities, a conclusion also corroborated by genome surveillance trends.

In all, around 19% of sequences submitted by India to a global genome testing database were of the Omicron variant, which spreads an estimated three times faster than other variants but is believed to be less than half as likely as Delta to lead to serious Covid-19.

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“The trends for India show that 18.7% of the Covid-19 positive samples that have been whole genome sequenced so far since the time aggressive sequencing began earlier this month, were positive for the heavily mutated Omicron variant of Sars-CoV-2,” said a senior central government official aware of the matter, on condition of anonymity.

The India samples are both from international travellers and from within the community that tested positive for Covid-19. “These are results of tests performed in all labs across the country, and is a mix of travellers and sentinel surveillance samples,” said the official.

Among the cities that recorded a sharp spike were Delhi and Mumbai. The two cities receive the highest numbers of international passengers and the surge was expected since the variant originated in South Africa and took hold in the UK, from where it has likely been imported by infected travellers.

On Friday, Delhi reported 1,796 new cases – in terms of average daily cases over a week, the count has increased 567%. In Mumbai, there were 5,428 new cases, with the rate of average daily cases having risen 437% in the most recent seven-day period.

The surge has caused most cities, including Delhi and Mumbai, to limit or cancel New Year’s Eve celebrations for the second straight year. In Mumbai, officials announced people will not be allowed to gather on beaches, seafront or gardens between 5pm and 5am for the next fortnight. In Delhi, New Year parties in public places and businesses have been prohibited.

HT reported on Thursday that more than half of community samples analysed by one large hospital in the last week were of Omicron. The proportion in Mumbai’s case was around 37%, officials there said.

The official quoted above said people should guard against believing Omicron’s rise was a good sign because it can lead to milder disease. “Delta infected population does not mean people will not get the infection when Omicron is in circulation. Whatever immune capacity we have, it has not been able to protect people from getting infected with Omicron even in a city like Delhi that has shown 80-90% seroprevalence in recent surveys,” said the official.

The person added that the rapid nature of Omicron’s spread would complicate containment efforts. “This is far more transmissible variant than what we have seen before; therefore, after a point, containment measures or contact tracing will be pointless. Each of us will have to look out for ourselves,” the official added.

The government also advised states to boost testing efforts.

Experts around the wold have stressed on the need to focus on mitigation measures – steps that can help manage the disease for those that need attention the most, since the variant is causing a smaller proportion of people to become seriously ill than before. Strategies to contain infections that can be mild or asymptomatic will involve huge numbers, be difficult to carry out and cause significant disruption.

Experts in India said the third wave is very much here. “There are early signs of third wave with consistently increasing rate of transmission and rising test positivity, especially in urban areas. With the way cases are multiplying truly exponentially, third wave is almost here,” said Giridhara R Babu, head, epidemiology, Indian Institute of Public Health.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar went on record to say the third wave had begun in his state. “Bihar has recorded the first Omicron case. Everyone has to be alert. The state is witnessing a sharp rise in cases, with the maximum being registered in Patna and Gaya. A large number of people from other states reside in these two places, and this could be a reason behind the spike in cases in these areas. The third Covid wave has begun in the state,” Kumar said.

Preventive measures remain the same — masking up, maintaining physical distancing and hand hygiene, and avoiding crowded spaces – and will remain crucial, a second expert added. “We also have tools we did not have before—drugs and vaccines that can be updated quickly if needed,” said Gagandeep Kang, vaccine expert, Christian Medical College, Vellore.

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    Rhythma Kaul works as an assistant editor at Hindustan Times. She covers health and related topics, including ministry of health and family welfare, government of India.

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