Hyderabad: There are clear indications that the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, which was first reported in South Africa, was around in many parts of the world for the past four to six weeks, at the very least and may be even longer, says SERB National Chair, IIT Hyderabad and founding member of noted SUTRA mathematical model for pandemics Dr M Vidyasagar.
South African health officials raised the alarm about the heavily mutated variant B1.1.529 (Omicron) on November 24. However, going by the second Omicron positive case in Bengaluru where a doctor with no travel history to South Africa tested positive, it appears that the variant was already making rounds even before the official announcement, he said.
“It is not entirely clear whether Omicron has actually originated in South Africa or they were the first ones to make the news public. Even if it originated in South Africa, by now it has already spread to many countries. So trying to ban international flights is not going to work, because it is already there in many countries,” Dr Vidyasagar points out.
A better option would be to introduce stringent and efficient screening and isolation at entry points rather than blanket bans and lockdowns, he said. “I think the time for banning international flight is gone because there are clear indications that the Omicron variant is already there in many countries. The Bengaluru doctor could have been infected by someone who arrived in India from these countries,” he said.
The distinguished professor from IIT Hyderabad notes that preliminary observations indicate that Omicron is spreading twice as fast as the Delta variant.
“We were looking at the South African data and whether we could infer anything from that. We felt it (Omicron) may be spreading twice as fast as the Delta variant. Other researchers in other countries are claiming that it spreads 4 to 8 times faster. At this juncture, the numbers are so small that we can’t get a reliable estimate,” he said.
The IIT Hyderabad faculty said that there was a need to wait for some more time to conclude whether Omicron was leading to severe symptoms and causing hospitalisations in South Africa.
“There are some who are claiming that symptoms are benign while others are claiming on the contrary. It is also a fact that there is an inherent delay in reporting hospitalisations in South Africa because they update the data only once a week. At the moment, I reserve my judgement. Just because it is spreading, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily harmful, we need to wait and watch,” Dr Vidyasagar added.
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