On 26th November, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put forth that Omicron—also known as the B.1.1.529 variant—is a variant of concern, on the advice of the Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE). Reportedly, the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 virus has several mutations that can impact its behaviour, its rate of transmission, and the severity of illness that results.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, Chair of the South African Medical Association—and the first one to spot a new variant in the country—said, "We are not saying that there will not be severe disease coming forward...but for now, even the patients that we have seen who are not vaccinated have mild symptoms. It's unfortunate that Omicron has been hyped as an extremely dangerous variant with multiple mutations while its virulency is still unknown." While it is not yet clear whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible, the positivity rate is swiftly rising in South Africa. Research on the B.1.1.529 variant is underway in the African continent and other parts of the world.
What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?
The patients that have been infected with this strain are showing mild symptoms of tiredness and fatigue, headache, body ache, and a scratchy throat. So far, patients have not reported a loss of taste or smell, and no drastic drop in oxygen saturation levels have been noticed either. Most patients seem to be recovering without the need for hospitalization. Nevertheless, vaccine makers including Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have announced that they will be tweaking the existing vaccine to ensure greater protection against the new variant.
Are there any Omicron virus cases in India?
While no Omicron case has been detected in the country as yet, two clusters—one in Maharashtra and the other in Karnataka—are currently under investigation. A man who travelled from Cape Town to Dombivli in the Thane district tested positive for Covid-19 on 24th November. His samples have been sent for genome testing to determine whether he has been infected with the specific strain or not. The Madhya Pradesh authorities are also searching for a woman from Botswana, South Africa, who visited Jabalpur on 18th November. According to reports, she is in isolation at a military organisation in the city.
Speaking at the Parliament session, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "I pray to all members of parliament to be alert because your good health in this time of crisis is our priority." He has urged people to exercise caution in the wake of the new variant. Till now, the Omicron variant has reached as many as 15 countries across the globe, including Canada, France, Hong Kong, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Have new restrictions been imposed concerning international travel in India?
With the World Health Organization alarming governments about the novel Covid-19 strain, India is one of the many countries that has chosen to revise its international travel guidelines to limit the spread of the Omicron variant.
1. The updated guidelines require all travellers (irrespective of Covid-19 vaccination status) coming to India from countries identified as 'at risk' to mandatorily undergo post-arrival Covid-19 testing at the airport.
2. If a passenger tests positive for coronavirus at the airport (post-arrival or pre-departure), they will be isolated and treated as per clinical management protocol. The sample of such passengers will be taken for whole-genome sequencing.
3. However, if passengers are found to be negative on the test, they will still have to undergo home isolation for 7 days, followed by repeated testing on the 8th day of arrival in India, and seven days of self-monitoring.
4. As per the revised guidelines 5 per cent of travellers coming from countries not in the 'at risk category' will also be tested on a random basis.
5. Passengers will have to submit a self-declaration form on the Air Suvidha portal, including the travel history of the past two weeks. They will also be required to upload a negative Covid-19 RT-PCR test report, which should have been conducted within 72 hours of the journey. A declaration concerning the authenticity of the test report will also be required; manipulated reports will make the passenger liable for criminal prosecution.
6. All the people who have come in contact with Covid positive travellers will also be subjected to quarantine for 14 days and tested.
As per the Centre's guidelines, the 'at risk' countries are European nations, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel. The new guidelines will come into effect from 1st December 2021.
At present, the World Health Organization is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the globe, to better understand the Omicron variant. The studies currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, the severity of infection (including symptoms), the performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and the effectiveness of treatment.