Amid growing concerns over Omicron, former Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) scientist Dr Raman Gangakhedkar told News18 that vaccines may provide only partial protection against the new ‘heavily mutated’ variant of SARS-CoV-2.
The epidemiologist, who was the face of the country’s apex medical research agency during government briefings on COVID-19 last year, said the surveillance of the new variant, which was detected in Botswana in southern Africa, will not be difficult if the government re-up its ante in testing, tracing, tracking and isolation.
Gangakhedkar emphasised that public has an important role to play by following the basic rules of wearing masks, maintaining hand hygiene and social distancing.
“Omicron is going to hunt all those who are vulnerable or non-vaccinated,” he told News18.com.
“Everyone must make efforts to protect themselves against the virus and not provide an opportunity for the virus to enter, replicate and thus mutate further inside their body.”
Each time the virus reproduces, it involves a risk of producing more faulty copies that have mutations, he said while insisting that “Indians must take both doses of vaccine as an urgency.”
A new coronavirus variant — B.1.1.529, officially named Omicron by the World Health Organisation (WHO) — is known to carry 50 mutations overall, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone.
According to Gangakhedkar, who was involved in the prevention and control strategies against the HIV epidemic in India, spike-protein and antibodies share a relationship between the sword and its cover. Hence, the changes in spike protein may end up decreasing the efficiency of antibodies.
Antigen is like a sword and its cover is like an antibody. “Our body has two ways to produce antibodies, one is generated through vaccines while other is generated via natural infection,” he explained.
The antibodies work by neutralising virus. “But here spike proteins are different which may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and vaccines may provide partial protection.”
While there is a fear related to the changes in spike protein as the mutations are “large in number”, Gangakhedkar, who retired from ICMR last June said “the surveillance benefit is the difference between Omicron and other variants can be spotted from the RT-PCR test itself.
“The RT-PCR test searches for the presence of three genes. If 2 of the three genes are found, the result is COVID positive. In the Omicron and Alpha variant, the spike protein gene (S gene) will not be detected in RT-PCR. Hence only 2 out of three genes will be positive,” he explained while adding that “all the positive samples where only 2 genes are found should be sent for genome sequencing instead of sending all samples.”
The new strain has been red-flagged by scientists due to an alarmingly high number of mutations, expecting that the heavy mutations might make the virus more resistant to vaccines, increase transmissibility and lead to more severe symptoms. However, former ICMR’s scientist believes that theoretically, viruses mutate to emerge into more transmissible but less virulent versions. “They want to continue their lineage by keeping the host alive and infecting more and more people, theoretically.”
There is some amount of uncertainty with respect to the virulence — severity or harmfulness of virus — as most of those who got infection from this variant are from younger age groups, he claimed.
“Younger persons, as it is, tend to have less severe COVID disease. Hence we need to wait for a couple of weeks for conclusive evidence on virulence.”
What should be done immediately?
According to Gangakhedkar, the government needs to immediately accelerate the vaccination coverage among the people who are yet to take their “first dose” of COVID-19 vaccine or second dose.
“The awareness of taking a second dose on time should also be boosted. India needs a strong campaign to clarify that vaccines work well with full dose and not partial.”
This is the right time to launch aggressive testing, tracking and tracing considering the daily number of infections in the country are lowest. “Health systems are under minimal stress due to COVID-19. Though we need to immediately isolate people carrying the Omicron strain, it would be good to assume that every infected person is probably having the Omicron variant and intensify subsequent strategies.”
There is no need to introduce extreme measures such as lockdown.
“Some countries that are opting for lockdowns are already witnessing high load on their health infrastructure due to COVID-19 and cannot afford to increase the load further. In India, cases are under control and I don’t see any need to take extreme steps. We only need to go back to the basics.”