Detection of the Omicron variant in a COVID-19-positive person with no travel history in India affirms that the “heavily mutated” virus is not just coming from airports, but is already here and likely to be present in all major cities, the chief of CSIR-CCMB told News18.com.
CCMB director Dr Rakesh Mishra, however, said that the positive aspect is that the variant might be causing negligible symptoms, so despite its probable community transmission, it has not had a huge impact, so far.
Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) is a fundamental life sciences research institute which works under the aegis of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), an autonomous body established by the Government of India.
On Thursday, India registered the first cases of the Omicron variant in Karnataka, prompting the government to step up surveillance of international passengers. One of the two patients is a 46-year-old resident of Bengaluru with no travel history.
“It certainly means that all cases are not coming from the airports,” Dr Mishra told News18.com. “It means it’s already here. We must understand that what we detect isn’t the only extent. In fact, most major cities in India, so far, are likely to have this variant.”
“While this calls for extensive monitoring and genome sequencing, we must also take this in a positive stride that despite its presence in the country, it hasn’t led to increase in hospitalisation or mortality,” he added.
However, Dr Mishra repeatedly emphasised that the comeback of the concerning variant is a wake-up call for all Indians. “In the coming two weeks, I may be able to say it with more conviction. This variant – if mild – can be a blessing in disguise. It has come back to make us relearn COVID-19-appropriate behaviour that Indians have stopped following due to the fall in the number of cases or due to vaccination.”
Wearing face masks, maintaining social distance and hand hygiene are of utmost importance, he said.
Dr Mishra also believes that India is in a “strong” position due to aggressive vaccination drives. “What we need is an extensive genome sequencing drive. There is a need to sequence large numbers of samples to detect more cases,” he said.
Vaccination the way to go
Vaccines are like helmets, Mishra said, adding that, just as helmets don’t prevent an accident, vaccines don’t prevent COVID-19 infections. “They both protect us from hospitalisation and death.”
According to him, India is in a “strong position” in the fight against Omicron. “Our sero-positivity is high and half of the country is fully vaccinated whereas around 80 percent of the adult population has already received the first dose of the vaccine. Population previously been infected with natural COVID-19 infection is also high. Hence, we stand a better chance to fight Omicron.”
Mishra said there can never be an argument against taking vaccines. “Taking vaccines should be part of our culture. If someone is not taking vaccines, that person should be seen as supporting the virus and hence, uncultured.”
The Omicron can be fought easily if India closely monitors the unfolding scenario on a granular level followed by people supporting the government in adopting COVID-19-appropriate behaviour and getting full vaccination, he said.