The Union health ministry has directed states to start rigorous screening and testing of all international travellers coming from or transiting through Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong as these countries have reported multiple cases of new coronavirus disease (Covid-19) variant 8.1.1529 that is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations.
“This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said in a letter to states issued late on Thursday.
Meanwhile, India reported a rise in daily coronavirus cases. With 10,549 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, the active cases stand at 1,10,133, the Union Health Ministry said today. As many as 488 people have succumbed to the COVID-19 infection in the country in the last 24 hours.
On Friday, the UK Health Security Agency said the new variant has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on. And it could make existing vaccines less effective.
Britain has banned flights from six African countries and asked returning British travellers from those destinations to quarantine.
New Covid variant B.1.1.529
The new variant, identified as B.1.1.529, carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus’ entry into cells in the body Researchers are still trying to determine whether it is more transmissible or more lethal than previous ones.
The WHO called a meeting today to discuss B.1.1.529 and decide if it will be officially designated a variant of interest or concern.
Cases of new Covid variant B.1.1.529
As of Thursday, there were almost 100 cases detected in South Africa, where it’s become the dominant strain among new infections
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Fauci: US could face ‘fifth wave’ of Covid as Omicron variant nears | Coronavirus
Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said on Sunday the US has “the potential to go into a fifth wave” of coronavirus infections amid rising cases and stagnating vaccination rates. He also warned that the newly discovered Omicron variant shows signs of heightened transmissibility.
As Fauci toured the political talkshows, countries around the world including the US scrambled to guard against Omicron, which has stoked fears of vaccine resistance.
On Sunday evening, shortly after the first Omicron cases in North America were confirmed in Canada, the White House said Biden met Fauci and other advisers on returning to Washington from holiday in Nantucket.
Fauci, a statement said, “informed the president that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid”.
The statement also said those already vaccinated should receive booster shots. Biden would “provide an update about the new variant and the US response on Monday”, the White House said.
Earlier, Fauci discussed why Omicron has raised such alarm.
“Right now we have the window into the mutations that are in this new variant,” he told NBC, “and they are troublesome in the fact that there are about 32 or more variants in that very important spike protein of the virus, which is the business end of the virus.
“In other words, the profile of the mutations strongly suggest that it’s going to have an advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection that you would get, for example, from the monoclonal antibody or from the convalescent serum after a person’s been infected and possibly even against some of the vaccine-induced antibodies.
“So it’s not necessarily that that’s going to happen, but it’s a strong indication that we really need to be prepared for that.”
Fauci also pointed to how Covid case numbers shifted dramatically in South Africa, where Omicron was discovered, over a short period.
“You were having a low level of infection, and then all of a sudden there was this big spike … and when the South Africans looked at it, they said, ‘Oh my goodness. This is a different virus than we’ve been dealing with.’
“So it clearly is giving indication that it has the capability of transmitting rapidly. That’s the thing that’s causing us now to be concerned, but also to put the pressure on ourselves now to do something about our presentation for this.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said no Omicron cases have been discovered in the US.
Fauci said: “As we all know, when you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably, it will be here.”
On CBS, Fauci said any fifth wave of cases “will really be dependent upon what we do in the next few weeks to a couple of months”.
“We have now about 62 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated,” he said, “who have not yet gotten vaccinated.
“Superimpose upon that the fact that, unquestionably, the people who got vaccinated six, seven, eight, nine, 10 months ago, we’re starting to see an understandable diminution in the level of immunity. It’s called waning immunity, and it was seen more emphatically in other countries before we saw it here.”
Fauci said an increase in immunization rates and booster shots might prevent another surge – but the US had to act fast.
“So if we now do what I’m talking about in an intense way, we may be able to blunt that,” he said. “If we don’t do it successfully, it is certainly conceivable and maybe likely that we will see another bit of a surge. How bad it gets is dependent upon us and how we mitigate.”
Politically charged resistance would seem to make a rapid increase in vaccination rates unlikely. While more than 70% of US adults are fully vaccinated, the most recent CDCcases up 16% over the previous week. By Sunday there had been 48,202,506 cases in the US with 776,537 deaths, according to .
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, also discussed the Omicron variant on Sunday.
“I think the main thing that has us focused on this,” he told CNN, “… is that it has so many mutations.”
Collins also said there were “good reasons to think it will probably be OK but we need to know the real answers to that and that’s going to take two or three weeks”.
On Friday, Biden said the US would join other countries and impose restrictions on travel from southern Africa from Monday.
Collins said: “I know, America, you’re really tired of hearing these things, but the virus is not tired of us and it’s shape-shifting itself. If you imagine we’re on a racetrack here … it’s trying to catch up with us, and we have to use every kind of tool in our toolbox to keep that from getting into a situation that makes this worse.
“We can do this but we have to do it all together.”
On CBS, Fauci was also asked about Republican attacks over federal research prior to the pandemic and his role in the Trump administration.
“Anybody who’s looking at this carefully realizes that there’s a distinct anti-science flavor to this,” he said. “They’re really criticizing science because I represent science. That’s dangerous. To me, that’s more dangerous than the slings and the arrows that get thrown at me.”
Asked if he thought attacks were meant to scapegoat him and deflect attention from Donald Trump’s failures, Fauci said: “You have to be asleep not to figure that one out.”
“I’m just going to do my job and I’m going to be saving lives and they’re going to be lying,” he said.
COVID-19 vaccines may partially work on new variant Omicron, says ex-ICMR scientist Dr Gangakhedkar
Gangakhedkar said the public has an important role to play by following the basic rules of wearing masks, maintaining hand hygiene and social distancing
Amid growing concerns over Omicron, former Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) scientist Dr Raman Gangakhedkar told News18 that vaccines may provide only partial protection against the new ‘heavily mutated’ variant of SARS-CoV-2.
The epidemiologist, who was the face of the country’s apex medical research agency during government briefings on last year, said the surveillance of the new variant, which was detected in Botswana in southern Africa, will not be difficult if the government re-up its ante in testing, tracing, tracking and isolation.
Gangakhedkar emphasised that public has an important role to play by following the basic rules of wearing masks, maintaining hand hygiene and social distancing.
“Omicron is going to hunt all those who are vulnerable or non-vaccinated,” he told News18.com.
“Everyone must make efforts to protect themselves against the virus and not provide an opportunity for the virus to enter, replicate and thus mutate further inside their body.”
Each time the virus reproduces, it involves a risk of producing more faulty copies that have mutations, he said while insisting that “Indians must take both doses of vaccine as an urgency.”
A new variant — B.1.1.529, officially named Omicron by the World Health Organisation (WHO) — is known to carry 50 mutations overall, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone.
According to Gangakhedkar, who was involved in the prevention and control strategies against the HIV epidemic in India, spike-protein and antibodies share a relationship between the sword and its cover. Hence, the changes in spike protein may end up decreasing the efficiency of antibodies.
Antigen is like a sword and its cover is like an antibody. “Our body has two ways to produce antibodies, one is generated through vaccines while other is generated via natural infection,” he explained.
The antibodies work by neutralising virus. “But here spike proteins are different which may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and vaccines may provide partial protection.”
While there is a fear related to the changes in spike protein as the mutations are “large in number”, Gangakhedkar, who retired from ICMR last June said “the surveillance benefit is the difference between Omicron and other variants can be spotted from the RT-PCR test itself.
“The RT-PCR test searches for the presence of three genes. If 2 of the three genes are found, the result is COVID positive. In the Omicron and Alpha variant, the spike protein gene (S gene) will not be detected in RT-PCR. Hence only 2 out of three genes will be positive,” he explained while adding that “all the positive samples where only 2 genes are found should be sent for genome sequencing instead of sending all samples.”
The new strain has been red-flagged by scientists due to an alarmingly high number of mutations, expecting that the heavy mutations might make the virus more resistant to vaccines, increase transmissibility and lead to more severe symptoms. However, former ICMR’s scientist believes that theoretically, viruses mutate to emerge into more transmissible but less virulent versions. “They want to continue their lineage by keeping the host alive and infecting more and more people, theoretically.”
There is some amount of uncertainty with respect to the virulence — severity or harmfulness of virus — as most of those who got infection from this variant are from younger age groups, he claimed.
“Younger persons, as it is, tend to have less severe COVID disease. Hence we need to wait for a couple of weeks for conclusive evidence on virulence.”
What should be done immediately?
According to Gangakhedkar, the government needs to immediately accelerate the vaccination coverage among the people who are yet to take their “first dose” of vaccine or second dose.
“The awareness of taking a second dose on time should also be boosted. India needs a strong campaign to clarify that vaccines work well with full dose and not partial.”
This is the right time to launch aggressive testing, tracking and tracing considering the daily number of infections in the country are lowest. “Health systems are under minimal stress due to . Though we need to immediately isolate people carrying the Omicron strain, it would be good to assume that every infected person is probably having the Omicron variant and intensify subsequent strategies.”
There is no need to introduce extreme measures such as lockdown.
“Some countries that are opting for lockdowns are already witnessing high load on their health infrastructure due to and cannot afford to increase the load further. In India, cases are under control and I don’t see any need to take extreme steps. We only need to go back to the basics.”
Himachal: 64 Covid cases surface, 2 dead; Shimla reports maximum cases
Himachal recorded 62 Covid cases on Sunday, while the death toll reached 3,830 after two more patients died of the infection; highest of 35 cases reported from Shimla
, DharamshalaHT Correspondent
Himachal Pradesh recorded 62 fresh Covid-19 infections on Sunday, taking the state’s case tally to 2,27,003 while the death toll reached 3,830 after two more patients died of the infection.
The highest of 35 cases were reported from Shimla, 11 from Kangra, seven from Solan, four from Hamirpur, two from Una and one each from Bilaspur, Kullu and Mandi.
The active cases came down to 795 while the recoveries have reached 2,22,361 after 74 people recuperated.
In terms of the number of cases, Kangra is the worst hit among all 12 districts logging 51,854 cases since the virus outbreak. It is followed by Mandi with 31,863 cases and Shimla with 27,869 cases.
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