Omicron: Stick to Covid protocols

Omicron: Stick to Covid protocols

Vaccination, basic defences remain our best hope

The first two cases in India have been found in Karnataka and that has suddenly alerted the health machinery, other authorities and the general public. Credit: PTI Photo

The emergence of the B.1.1.529 Omicron variant, which contains a large number of mutations in the coronavirus’ spike protein, has shaken up the world, which was settling down in the belief that it was getting the better of the virus. It is early days in the fight against the new threat whose nature is yet to be fully understood. While there is some evidence that Omicron spreads fast, initial assessments suggest that the severity of the infection may not be very high. The ability of the virus to escape vaccine-induced immune responses is yet to be fully ascertained. In fact, an earlier variant named Beta, which was first detected in South Africa in 2020, was shown to be very infectious and was considered to have the ability to partially escape immune responses, but it did not spread widely. It is in the nature of viruses to vary, and that is the main challenge about them. 

The initial responses to the new variant expose the pitfalls in the handling of the virus. After the discovery of the first infection, South Africa made the announcement and made available to the world the basic genetic details of the variant a fortnight ago. This was done in the public interest. But the immediate global reaction was to impose travel bans on that country and some other African countries. Some countries have banned the entry of all foreigners. The variant was independently discovered in some European countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. It is now said to be prevalent in at least two dozen countries. So, the knee-jerk action of selective travel bans may only have a limited impact. Past experience in the fight against the virus suggests this. 

The first two cases in India have been found in Karnataka and that has suddenly alerted the health machinery, other authorities and the general public. The situation is different from last year because a large section of the population has been fully or partially vaccinated. Though the efficacy of the vaccines against Omicron is yet to be proved, they are still considered to be a good defence against the virus. This underlines the need to shore up the campaign for vaccination, which has been lagging for some weeks now. The unevenness of vaccination within and among countries is a matter of concern because that itself would prolong the pandemic and encourage the birth of new variants. It is important to stick to the basics of defence -- mask wearing, maintaining social distance and washing hands. It is also important to improve the testing, surveillance and clinical facilities to deal with the situation at various stages.