Pulp-it | Should you lose sleep over Omicron?
The answers to three questions should guide our response to Omicron, the name assigned to the variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus currently ravaging part of South Africa.
One, is it more transmissible or infective?
Two, does it cause more severe disease?
Three, is it resistant to existing Covid-19 vaccines?
Based on our current level of knowledge, the answer to all three questions is: “We don’t know, yet”.
Sure, there are some experts weighing in on the likelihood of the strain (with around 30 mutations, mostly in the spike protein which is the primary target of the vaccines) being more infective – and they may well be right – but, right now, this is not backed by any scientific evidence.
That could come soon, but until it does, there is no need to lose sleep over B.1.1.529.
That the variant originated in Africa shouldn’t surprise anyone – vaccination levels in the continent are still low, which, in turn, means more people are vulnerable to the viral infection, which, in turn, increases the probability of one of them being immune-compromised enough to play host to the virus for weeks, perhaps months, potentially facilitating multiple mutations in the virus. To hark back to an aphorism that became popular in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic: “No one is safe till everyone is safe”. And unfortunately, everyone is not safe yet.
So, what should India’s response be?
The country is currently seeing the lowest level of daily infections (7-day average) at least since last June, almost 45% of its adult population has been fully vaccinated, and another 37% of its adult population has been partially vaccinated. But variants can still wreak havoc, as evident from the experience of the United States and parts of Europe earlier this year.
I believe that the country needs to do five things, even as it continues to go about business as usual. As the cover of one of the greatest books ever written says: “Don’t Panic”.
One, sequence more viral genomes. The onset of the second wave, and its magnitude, can be directly attributed to a lapse on the part of Indian public health agencies — they did not sequence enough viral genomes. It’s important that this is done across the country.
Two, fully vaccinate more people quickly. It’s safe to assume that full vaccination provides more protection than partial vaccination. When vaccine supplies were short, it made sense to increase the gap between doses; now that the country has enough vaccine supplies, it should reduce the gap for Covishield (the vaccine that accounts for almost 90% of doses administered in the country).
Three, start vaccinating children. Two vaccines have been authorised for use in children, so the delay is inexplicable.
Four, ensure adherence to Covid protocols. That means no mass events. It means masking (preferably with proper N95 masks, not cloth ones). And it means social distancing.
Five, follow the science. There is likely to be a profusion of research on B.1.1.529 in the next few weeks — on its transmissibility, the severity of illness caused by it, its response to vaccines currently in use (and whether a booster shot offers people a better chance against infection by the variant). Science needs to guide our response to Omicron.
And the answer to the question in the headline is: “Not yet”.
R Sukumar is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times
Pulp-it is a weekly column for HT Premium subscribers
The views expressed are personal