India asks states to step up COVID testing over Omicron

Virus testing to be ramped up as some cities delay the reopening of schools as a precautionary measure.

A healthcare worker collects a swab sample from a man in Ahmedabad, India.
A healthcare worker collects a swab sample from a passenger as others wait for their turn upon arrival at a railway station during a rapid antigen testing drive for COVID-19 in Ahmedabad [Amit Dave/Reuters]

India’s health ministry says the states should ramp up COVID-19 testing as the world battles the new coronavirus variant Omicron, while some cities have delayed the reopening of schools as a precautionary measure.

The ministry on Tuesday also said the Omicron variant “doesn’t escape RT-PCR and RAT (testing)”, appeasing some concerns among domestic health workers that changes in the spike protein of the virus could lead to conventional tests failing to detect the mutation.

It comes as the ministry warned the state governments last week that a recent fall in testing could undermine India’s efforts to contain the pandemic.

A healthcare worker collects a coronavirus test swab sample from a woman at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

While India has not reported any Omicron cases yet, authorities are studying the sample of a man who tested positive for COVID-19 after recently returning from South Africa to see if he is infected with the Omicron or another variant.

Also on Tuesday, Mumbai’s municipal corporation said it was delaying reopening schools for younger children to December 15 instead of Wednesday as a precautionary measure given the global situation involving Omicron.

In-person classes for senior students began about two months ago in the city.

The city of Pune, which is also located in the western state of Maharashtra, has also postponed the reopening of schools, local media reported.

‘Wait and see’

K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, told Al Jazeera the new COVID-19 variant has some features which are of concern but there may be one feature “which may be somewhat reassuring”.

“The two features that are of concern are that because of very high number of spike protein mutations, it’s likely to be much more infectious than the previous variants. Because of the spike protein mutations, it may also be able to partially at least evade the immunity that has been produced by vaccines which has been predominantly focused on the spike protein,” he said.

“The reassuring feature is that so far, reports coming from South Africa and Europe suggest that it’s a very mild form of illness. If that is so, even if it’s more infectious and will cause a lot of problems in terms of number of cases going to be infected and requiring medical attention, the pressure on hospitals may be less, and serious illnesses and deaths may be less compared to the Delta variant.”

“Whether it will replace Delta and become a milder form is something that we have to wait and see. Since we still do not know enough about this variant, we have to keep all systems in readiness and be ready and prepared to face a serious wave,” he added.

After battling a record jump in infections and deaths in April and May, cases have come down substantially in India.

Its COVID-19 cases rose by 8,954 on Wednesday. It was 6,990 on Tuesday – the smallest increase in 551 days.

India’s totally coronavirus tally is nearly 35 million, with only the United States reporting more infections. Deaths on Wednesday rose by 267, taking the total to 469,247, health ministry data showed.

But there have been concerns over India’s vaccination drive amid the discovery of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

“I wouldn’t say that we are really prepared because our vaccination drive is stumbling and that is going to be a major challenge,” health economist Rijo M John told Al Jazeera.

“I am worried about people above 45 years of age. Only 58 percent of the population above 45 has been given two doses of the vaccine,” he said.

“If the Omicron variant turns out to be more problematic or leads to more serious diseases, then this is the population that needs to be highly worried.”

Indian firm studying if Covaxin works on Omicron

Meanwhile, India’s Bharat Biotech said on Tuesday it was studying if its Covaxin shot would work against variants of coronavirus such as Omicron, after the CEO of drugmaker Moderna warned that existing vaccines would be less effective.

“Covaxin was developed against the original Wuhan variant,” a Bharat Biotech spokesperson told Reuters in a text message, referring to the Chinese city where the virus first emerged.

“It has shown that it can work against other variants, including the Delta variant. We continue to research on new variants.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies