Quoting the World Health Organization (WHO), it also said that the Omicron variant is spreading faster than the delta variant of the coronavirus in South Africa, where delta circulation was low.

As many as 101 cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus have been detected in 11 states and union territories so far, the government said Friday, advising people to avoid non-essential travel and to keep New Year’s celebrations low.

In a press briefing, Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said that although daily COVID-19 cases are below 10,000 in the past 20 days, there is a need to remain vigil due to the new Omicron variant and the increasing cases in other countries.

Detailing the Omicron cases in India, Maharashtra has reported 32 cases of the variant, Delhi 22, Rajasthan 17, Karnataka and Telangana eight each, Gujarat and Kerala five each, Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal one each, he said.

“As the Omicron variant is spreading very rapidly across Europe and most of the world, there is a need to avoid unnecessary travel and mass gatherings and to keep celebrations low-key. New Year celebrations should be quiet,” said Dr. Palram Bhargava, Director General of ICMR.

He stressed that areas with a positivity rate of more than five percent need to ensure restrictive measures until they reach less than 5 percent and remain so for at least two weeks.

When asked if India is implementing appropriate genetic sequencing, NITI member Aayog (Health) Dr VK Paul said that sufficient systematic strategic sampling of genetic sequencing is being done to detect Omicron cases.

He said that India is carrying out the “second highest” number of genetic sequencing in the world and it is condensing further, and emphasized that genetic sequencing of every sample is not possible.

“It’s a pandemic monitoring, assessment and tracing tool, not yet a diagnostic tool.”

Paul said a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic is taking place in Europe with a sharp rise in cases despite the 80 per cent partial vaccination being done.

By comparison, Ball said that by shifting the population level, 80,000 cases in the UK would be 14 in India.

The government has taken comprehensive and far-reaching measures to prevent the entry of Omicron through restrictions and monitoring of incoming passengers. The system has been further simplified, he said, and genetic monitoring has been ramped up.

The general situation is stable. In some areas, the rate of positivity is increasing and the necessary restrictive measures must be implemented if necessary. There must be proper tracing of contacts … and containment measures must be implemented. The clusters should be investigated to see if a new variant is driving the increase in cases there,” Ball said.

On whether the Omicron variant is at the level of community transmission, Agarwal said, “We cannot at this point say that the Omicron variant is prevalent in India. Most of the Omicron cases have a travel history or have contacts with those with a travel history.

“There are one or two cases where we have not been able to establish such a date but the process is still ongoing.”

Referring to the World Health Organization, the joint secretary said that Omicron is spreading in South Africa faster than the Delta variant. Quoting the World Health Organization, he said the spread of Omicron is likely to go beyond the delta where community transmission occurs.

“Omicron is spreading at a rate that we have not seen with any previous variant. We are concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as moderate,” Agarwal said, citing the Director-General of the World Health Organization.

“The massive number of cases could again overwhelm health systems that are not prepared. Vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. Masks, physical distancing, ventilation and hand hygiene must be followed along with vaccinations,” he said.

In most countries, it is the people who are hospitalized and the dying are the unvaccinated. Therefore, the priority should be to vaccinate the unvaccinated, Agarwal said.

On the COVID-19 situation in India, the government said 19 districts are reporting weekly positivity between 5 and 10 per cent and in five districts over 10 per cent.

India has so far provided 82.8 crores of first doses and 53.72 crores of second doses of Covid vaccine. More than 136 crores of doses have been given in the country which is 2.8 times the total doses taken in the United States, she said.

Agarwal said there is no evidence to suggest that the vaccines are not effective against Omicron.

When asked about the booster dose, Ball said, “This time around vaccine resources are, in general, in good shape. We are engaged with our scientific community to look at these issues on an ongoing basis.”

We will select this (booster dose) with the right guide at the right time. But this comes after we provide initial vaccination coverage to the largest possible population. This is still the first goal.

Paul said that with elections approaching in some states, “guidance has been issued that applies to all segments of society. The context of the elections is visible to leadership and government and is being taken into account as we move forward with the pandemic response.”

When asked if mRNA vaccines are more effective as boosters, Bhargava said, “The scientific understanding so far is that the antibody response with the mRNA vaccine is higher than the one we use in India, this is the initial response.

“But the fall is also faster than the fall we use. There is science that says the dose mix and match can be given and this is under discussion. We have seen that with the mRNA vaccines in Israel, Germany and Argentina people got an omicron infection after the third dose.”

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