India’s health ministry says the severity of COVID-19 disease from the Omicron variant in the country could be low due to vaccination and widespread exposure to the Delta variant that infected nearly 70 percent of the population by July.
“Given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to Delta variant as evidenced by high seropositivity, the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low,” it said in a statement on Friday.
“However, scientific evidence is still evolving.”
India on Friday reported 9,216 new COVID-19 infections after announcing its first two Omicron cases the previous day. Deaths rose by 391, bringing the total to 470,115.
Total COVID-19 cases have now reached 34.62 million, health ministry data showed.
The health ministry on Thursday confirmed its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in two people and officials said one passenger had arrived from South Africa and the other, a person who had not travelled to the country at all.
The ministry said the cases involved two men in the southern Karnataka state, a 66-year-old man who had travelled to India from South Africa and a 46-year-old doctor.
Hundreds of contacts of the two men have been traced and tested for the virus and at least five people have tested positive for the virus.
Health officials said the 66-year-old man who tested positive was asked to self-isolate in the hotel where he was staying because he had no symptoms.
The man tested himself again privately on November 23 and after receiving a negative result travelled to Dubai on November 27, state health officials said.
The 46-year-old doctor was tested on November 22 after he had a fever and his body ached, officials said. He self-isolated the same day and five of his contacts tested positive afterwards and have since been isolated.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill and whether it can thwart the vaccine.
India has already classified several countries as “at-risk” in response to the Omicron variant, and travellers from those countries are being tested after they arrive in India.
In addition, India is testing 2 percent of all other international travellers randomly. Genome sequencing is also being done to detect the variant. Nearly 8,000 passengers have been tested since Wednesday.
‘Don’t delay in getting fully vaccinated’
Dr Balram Bhargava, head of the Indian Council of Medical Research, India’s top medical research organisation, urged people not to panic and get vaccinated.
“Increased vaccine uptake is the need of the hour. Don’t delay in getting fully vaccinated,” he said.
Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, a health policy expert, said the focus should be on finding the unvaccinated and making sure they receive shots.
“Some of the hesitancy may disappear on the news of the new variant. But this can’t be taken for granted,” he said.
Some Indian states have issued strict restrictions on international arrivals as precautionary measures, including mandatory COVID-19 tests for those coming from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
More than 56 percent of Indians have received at least one vaccine dose – 32 percent are fully vaccinated and 24 percent have received a single shot, according to Our World In Data.