With Omicron cases rapidly on the rise, the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 is said to have reached nearly 60 countries with most of them beginning to impose restrictions again. Though the variant shows mild symptoms, Dr Subhrojyoti Bhowmick, Director, clinical research of Peerless Hospital, Kolkata, says it’s high time that Covid-appropriate behaviour is followed. The city’s leading clinical trial specialist and clinical pharmacologist also informs The Optimist News that booster doses are the need of the hour and vaccination drives for children should start in India without further delay.
Q) India was badly hit by the huge second Coronavirus wave. Now, Omicron has entered India and the number of cases is increasing each day. How much should this be a cause of concern?
A) India is doing a remarkable job as far as vaccination is concerned. More than 50 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. More than 85 per cent has got its first jabs. Worldwide reports suggest people who have been fully vaccinated, even if they have been infected with Omicron, the symptoms have been mild.
Q) So, you don’t expect the third wave with Omicron?
A) I personally don’t think that Omicron infections in India are going to create a third wave. Omicron infections in India are going to have mild constraints as a sizable population has been immunised in the country. However, we need to increase the vaccination rate of the second dose.
Q) Is Omicron more contagious than the Delta variant?
A) (Cuts in) It is contagious considering the humongous population we have. So, the new variant is a cause of concern for us. With the year coming to an end, people will be in a celebratory mood, hence we need to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour strictly. Otherwise, too many people will fall sick at the same time. Omicron is 500 times more contagious than the Delta variant and thus, we need to be extra cautious.
Q) In the case of Omicron, mostly young people are getting infected. What are your thoughts?
A) Even though there have been infections in young people, there haven’t been so much morbidity or mortality due to Omicron till now. So, luckily the infections haven’t been dangerous. Let’s not panic unnecessarily. We should be careful and not let the infection spread.
Q) How effective are our vaccines against Omicron?
A) It’s too early to comment on that. We have to perform utilisation testing. It means the virus has to be segregated. It has to be taken from an immunised individual and mixed in the laboratory to see if it restricts the growth of the virus or not. That kind of study is still awaited in India. Given the constant mutation, there is a chance it will escape the antibody produced by the virus. But these are far-flung propositions. We should wait till published reports come out. My personal take on Omicron is that the existing vaccines are working because if this was a big killer variant, then in doubly vaccinated individuals, there would have been considerable morbidity and mortality. But nothing has been noted till now. So, we have to believe that the vaccines will work at this point in time and we will have to continue with the vaccination schedule.
Q) Do you think the booster shots can work against Omicron?
A) I believe, we should have boosters because worldwide, it is known that after six to nine months antibodies continue to decline. So, especially for frontline workers like doctors, nurses, paramedical staff, I strongly recommend booster shots. I have noticed in my hospital that several doctors who were vaccinated in early January and February have fallen sick again due to the virus. I am a proponent of the booster dose. I think the booster doses should also be given to high-risk individuals especially those with liver, heart diseases and to immuno-compromised patients. Covid-19 belongs to the same virus group as influenza and for that, we take one shot every year. Influenza mutates a lot and we don’t call it a booster. With the existence of Omicron and with many more such mutations, it is essential that the booster comes into play.
Q) How much is India prepared to tackle Omicron?
The virus still exists and there is always a chance that it will mutate into more contagious varieties, and hence, a lot of international collaborations by the government are required to understand how the information is percolated. Genomic analysis has to be done on a regular basis in the country because we might detect a variety that is not found worldwide. Also, we should share our data with other nations. This is a collective battle. No one is safe until everyone is safe. The government of India apart from rolling out booster doses will play an important role in vaccine diplomacy too. Health has to be made a priority not during the pandemic alone but after the crisis too. 1.2-2 per cent of the Indian GDP cannot be spent on health. It has to be made a priority and at least 10 percent of GDP should go into health. We definitely require stringent regulation as far as Covid-19 behaviour is concerned. According to me, people should be penalised if they are not wearing masks and the government should be extremely strict on this policy as in many areas, people are just not bothered about wearing masks. Also, it’s important that we start giving vaccines to the kids. The children are a vulnerable population. We have approved the vaccines for kids two months back but I don’t see the vaccination drive starting. Online education is really taking the country backwards. Schools have to reopen.