Ashoka University organised a discussion on ‘SARS-CoV-2 Omicron Variant’ today to answer important questions regarding requirement of booster shots, increased severity of the disease, effects of vaccinations and prior infections with Dr.Shahid Jameel, Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University and Gautam Menon, Prof. of Physics and Biology, Ashoka University. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Hina Lateef Nizami, Postdoctoral Fellow, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
Speaking at the discussion, Dr. Jameel said, “Before the emergence of the troubling variant of SARS- CoV-2 named Omicron, it was expected that people in India may be able to return to a life similar to pre-pandemic by early next year, but this possibility now seems distant. The Omicron variant is concerning due to its highest number of mutations among any variant so far, 50 in all, with 32 in the Spike protein, making it significantly more transmissible than even the Delta variant. Presently, more than 63 countries around the world have reported cases associated with Omicron. The nature of Omicron mutations suggests increased efficiency of infection, transmission and evasion of antibodies and interferon, an early innate antiviral response.”
Dr. Jameel further said “New early lab results from South Africa and Pfizer show about 40- and 25-fold drop in virus neutralization ability of the Pfizer vaccine. According to various studies, booster shots have shown to increase the amount of antibodies and cut reinfection rates. Given these results, it is now time that India devises policies on booster shots and vaccination for children.”
Sharing his insights at the discussion on the new variant Prof. Gautam Menon said, “The news of emergence of the new Omicron variant from South Africa is worrying. While we will know more in the coming weeks but what we know so far is that this variant spreads more efficiently and can evade immunity even from an earlier infection of COVID-19 and vaccination. There are some positive indications such as the severity of the illness being possibly less than that caused by Delta variant but this requires confirmation. In India, it is essential for us to now step up the vaccination program to vaccinate around 15% of India’s totally unvaccinated adults and also administer the second dose to the remaining population. Booster shots may be necessary, at least initially for frontline health care workers, those about 60 years of age and those who are immunocompromised, but others can wait for them. We require more information about the use of the currently available Indian vaccines as boosters and also about how the two vaccines most used in India- Covaxin and Covishield, might perform against the Omicron variant.”
At the discussion, both Dr. Jameel and Prof. Menon stated that they expect the cases in India to rise by early next year as this has been the experience of other countries with high levels of vaccination, such as Israel and the UK. They also put a note of caution that as more data becomes available, some of the information that we know as of now could be wrong. Both the experts concluded that the best strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 still are mask-wearing, care for ventilation, physical distancing and stepping up vaccination and the responsibility for these rests as much with the individual as with the government.