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Covid-19’s Omicron variant can stealthily infect despite all precautions taken. It can cause severe issues, and even death, among the vulnerable. People should vaccinate before it is too late, a top virologist said. 

“Earlier, Delta was more efficient in transmission, and it dominated the epidemiology. Today, Omicron is even more transmissible,” Dr T Jacob John, a retired professor and head of departments of clinical virology and microbiology at Christian Medical College, Vellore, told this writer.

Whether vaccinated or not, following Covid protocol is a must, but even the educated often forget this point. “Masks must be compulsorily worn, but all masks are not good enough. The other precautions regarding social distancing etc., are well known. But despite these, Omicron can stealthily infect,” Dr John said on how to stay safe.  

Dr John explained how Japan experienced two months of endemic prevalence since the end of September last year and disallowed travellers from outside in a bid to stop Omicron. 

“But Omicron entered Japan through a twice-vaccinated diplomat. Now, Japan is bracing for a new wave with all known defences, including booster doses,” Dr John said in an email interview.

For the last two years, the Covid pandemic has taken the world by storm and refuses to subside. The virus is getting mutated, and new variants are cropping up. People are in the midst of uncertainty as no one seems to have an answer. 

During the first wave, the virus was new. The lockdown was announced as an experiment. Vaccines were not available then, and we could not flatten the curve. The result: the economy suffered, and lives were lost.

During the second wave, though vaccines were available, many other factors came into play – Kumbh Mela, elections, people’s resistance to take vaccines, unavailability of enough vaccine stock. All this led to a devastating result, with India losing too many lives along with the rest of the world.  

After the horrifying second wave caused by the Delta variant, from early July to the last week of December 2021, India experienced a period of low daily cases, settling down to an endemic state. 

Next cropped up the Omicron variant of the SARS Cov-2 virus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) on November 26, 2021, alerted about the next wave with several of infections. The initial relief was that it was a diluted version of Covid caused by Delta. People took it lightly, thinking the variant to be mild. The vaccinated ones were confident that now the virus can’t attack them. The result is in front of us. Omicron is now spreading like a wildfire. 

The government has started vaccination for the 15-18 age groups from January 3, 2022. But the point is even if we achieve high coverage, will the response affect the shape or mass of a third wave? Stressing the importance of vaccines, Dr John says, “Those who are due for the second dose must take it before it is too late. Now boosters are available to government-stipulated categories. Take it. Even 15-18 (age group) likewise.”

The government has launched booster doses for certain categories, but what if another variant comes? Another booster dose? “We must find out by studies. Another variant may not be immunity dodger. If found necessary, yes another booster. If not, wait for the waning of immunity — boosted immunity may last longer than un-boosted,” he says.

Last year, the fatalities were very high due to the Delta variant, how scared should we be this time? Dr John says, “Omicron case-fatality rate is about 10% (roughly) that of Delta. For vulnerable people, Omicron can cause severe disease and even death.” 

Taking a vaccine does not make us stay protected forever. So, for how long does a vaccine’s effect last? Dr John says, “In the UK, effectiveness against disease requiring hospitalisation was 72% till 25 weeks after the second dose; fell to 52% after 25 weeks, but rose to 88% two weeks after a booster. Although we use different vaccines, the principle is the same.”

Some people are of the view that a human body can build natural immunity, and when we take vaccines, we become dependent and our body gradually reduces the ability to build natural immunity. Dr John dismisses this concept. “Wrong notion. The vaccine is just like infection in stimulating the immune system with no risk of diseases (no infection is introduced). Immunity is specific to each infectious agent.”

So apart from vaccines, how do we build our immunity? Dr John says, “Immunity is specific to one agent or its vaccine. Either get infected (with attendant risks) or get vaccinated.”

Dr John said WHO took just two days after the announcement from South Africa about this variant to issue its warning and declared Omicron as a variant of concern on November 26 last year. He said scientists in South Africa provided early signals of two sinister properties — transmission efficiency higher than Delta, and Omicron’s ability to dodge immunity, whether induced by infection with other variants or the locally used vaccines, mainly mRNA, even two doses. 

India, Dr John said, should have acted promptly immediately after the warning from WHO. What can the central and state governments do now to stop the virus from spreading more? “Far too late to consider that,” Dr John concludes. 

The writer is an independent journalist and content creator based in Delhi.

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