New Delhi: In less than 14 days after being detected for the first time in Southern Africa, the new variant of coronavirus has now spread to nearly 38 countries, including India, which witnessed a devastating second wave of the pandemic earlier this year. On Thursday, 2 confirmed cases of Omicron—B 1.1.529 were detected in Karnataka— the first in the country, prompting authorities across the country to order strict action against people violating Covid protocols.Also Read - Why COVID Third Wave in India Will Not be as Severe as First And Second? Here’s What Dr Guleria Has to Say

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Dr. Anurag Agrawal, Director of CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, asserted that Omicron does have all the attributes of the type of variant that can create a third wave of pandemic but the reports on its transmissibility being six times more than that of Delta variant are probably wrong.

“If we really look at Omicron, it has all the features of the type of variant that would create a third wave. It has a very powerful immune escape from all the data that we are seeing. It is clearly highly transmissible. The reports of it being six times more transmissible are probably wrong, but it could be one-and-a-half times more transmissible, even two times more transmissible. But even that is actually very highly transmissible. All of us remember Delta (variant),” news agency ANI quoted Agrawal as saying.

Is India Ready to Battle Third Wave? 

While Omicron has created a panic across the globe, India has been recording less than 10,000 new COVID cases daily. The daily rise in coronavirus infections has been less than 50,000 for 160 consecutive days now. The active cases have declined to 99,974, comprising 0.29 per cent of the total infections, the lowest since March 2020.

As per the studies, the majority of Indians have developed antibodies against the delta variant and thus, India may not witness a major rise in COVID cases but carelessness may have a detrimental effect.

“Do not lower our guards and restart taking full precautions as before including social distancing. People need to understand that Covid appropriate behavior and vaccination are the only ways to stay safe from this variant,” Animesh Arya, Senior Consultant in Respiratory Medicine, Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, New Delhi had said.

Health System Needs to be Equipped

Taking lessons from what happened in the country during the first and second waves of the pandemic, India’s health system needs to be equipped to tackle emerging and re-emerging cases. Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the WHO South-East Asia Region, had warned that an increase in cases alone may pose overwhelming demand on health care systems and may lead to increased morbidity and mortality.

She had called for enhancing event-based surveillance such as the rapid spread of outbreaks in healthcare facilities or communities which may be triggered by a variant that spreads more easily from person to person, or increase in cases among populations expected to have a high level of immunity with prior infections or high vaccination coverage, which may indicate the presence of a variant able to evade the immune response.

Meanwhile, in Delhi, several preparations are taking place, from oxygen beds to its supply and storage facilities. Addressing reporters, CM Kejriwal had said that the Delhi government is equipped with around 30,000 hospital beds, ICUs, ventilators and oxygen supplies.

“This time, we have prepared 30,000 oxygen beds. Out of these, 10,000 are ICU beds. There are 6,800 beds under construction that will be ready by February,” the chief minister had said in an online briefing.

In Mumbai, deans of all jumbo centres and ward officers have been directed to keep the facilities ready so that they can be activated within a day, if needed. As per the reports of the Indian Express, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is also scaling up vaccinations by organizing special campaigns in private and public with a large number of unvaccinated employees. Similarly in Punjab and other states, the healthcare officials were instructed to ensure adequate medicines.

What Experts Say

Indian health experts said that it is premature to say if India will face the third wave, but ‘people need to follow COVID appropriate behavior religiously’. All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) chief Dr Randeep Guleria emphasised the need to be very vigilant and have aggressive surveillance both for international travellers and in the region where there is a sudden increase in the number of cases.

He asserted that the efficacy of vaccines, including those being administered in India, needs to be “critically” evaluated. “The new Omicron variant of coronavirus has reportedly got over 30 mutations in the spike protein region giving it the potential to develop an immune escape mechanism. In such a scenario, the efficacy of vaccines including those in use in India needs to be evaluated critically”,  said Guleria.

Elaborating further, the AIIMS chief added, “Data on the Omicron variant’s transmissibility, virulence and immune-escape will determine the future course of action.”

“Do not lower our guards and restart taking full precautions as before including social distancing. People need to understand that Covid appropriate behaviour and vaccination are the only ways to stay safe from this variant,” said Animesh Arya, Senior Consultant in Respiratory Medicine, Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, New Delhi.