New Delhi: Within days of being detected in South Africa, the new more deadly COVID-19 variant — which has been named Omicron by World Health Organization (WHO) –has set alarm bells ringing around the world. India is no exception.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a high-level meeting on Saturday, where he was updated on the new variant of SARS-CoV-2 which has been found in some other countries too. Modi instructed officials to be proactive and review guidelines of international travel.
The first question which comes to people’s mind is whether Covishield and Covaxin – the main vaccines being used in India’s inoculation programme – will be effective against Omicron.
These are early days, with research and study underway. But based on information available so far, mRNA vaccines may not work against coronavirus. That’s the opinion of Dr Samiran Panda, head of epidemiology and communicable diseases division of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
“mRNA vaccines are directed towards spike protein and receptor interaction. So mRNA vaccines need to be tweaked around this change already observed,” said Dr Panda.
Moderna’s COVID vaccine, developed in the US, is a two-dose mRNA jab. Covishield, the OxfordAstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by Pune’s Serum Institute of India, and Bharat Biotech-developed Covaxin are different in nature.
“Not all vaccines are similar. Covishield and Covaxin produce immunity through a different antigen presentation to our system,” explained Dr Panda.
Classified by WHO as a variant of concern, the Omicron variant is believed to be more transmissible and immune-evasive.
What scientists have so far observed in Omicron is structural changes, Dr Panda said. But more studies are required to confirm that the variant is deadlier than the other variants of Covid.
“Structural changes have been observed in the newly reported emerging variant which is indicative of a possibility for adherence to cell, cellular receptors with an increased affinity, with the possibility of transmission,” Dr Panda said.
But it requires time and more examination to determine whether Omicron gets transmitted really fast or causes clusters of infection.
“WHO examined all this and we need to wait for some more time to figure out whether there is an increased clustering of infections happening or severe form of disease or excessive deaths. Taking all these into consideration, WHO has announced called it Variant of Concern,” Dr Panda explained.
India is yet to report a case of Omicron variant. The Central government has advised states and union territories to be on guard.