Spooked by the reportedly tamer mutant of coronavirus, mischievously named Omicron by the WHO after skipping two Greek letters to save Chinese President Xi Jinping’s skin, Some Indian genome scientists have recommended a booster dose of Covid-19 vaccines for those above 40 years, with preference to high-risk and high-exposure populations, after the SII already made a sales pitch for an AstraZeneca booster dose for patients who had been administered its Covishield by sending an application to the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI).
“Wherever I go, everyone says: tell us more about Omicron,” says Senjuti Saha, molecular microbiologist and director of the Child Health Research Foundation in Dacca, Bangladesh. “There is so little understanding of what’s going on, and that’s true, even for scientists,” Nature reported yesterday.
The recommendation was made in the weekly bulletin of the Indian Sars-CoV-2 Genomics Sequencing Consortium (Insacog), a network of national testing labs set up by the government to monitor genomic variations of Covid-19.
The body made the recommendation in light of the risks posed by the new B.1.1.529 or the Omicron variant of Covid-19 to the country. It also highlighted the vaccination of all those who are unvaccinated yet and are “at-risk.”
It said that while the antibodies from the current vaccines are unlikely to be sufficient to neutralise the Omicron variant, the risk of severe disease caused due to the variant is likely to be reduced.
“Vaccination of all remaining unvaccinated at-risk people and consideration of a booster dose for those 40 years of age and over, first targeting the most high-risk or high-exposure may be considered,” the Insacog bulletin said.
The recommendation came amid demands for a booster dose of Covid-fighting vaccines by lawmakers during a discussion in the Lok Sabha on the pandemic situation in the country.
The Insacog said genomic surveillance will be critical for early detection of the presence of this variant, to enable necessary public health measures.
It also recommended monitoring travel to and from the known affected areas, and contact tracing of Covid-19 cases with an epidemiological link to the affected areas has been implemented, along with increased testing.
“Vaccination of all remaining unvaccinated at-risk people and consideration of a booster dose for those 40 years of age and over, first targeting the most high-risk / high-exposure may be considered since low levels of neutralising antibodies from current vaccines are unlikely to be sufficient to neutralise Omicron, although the risk of severe disease is still likely to be reduced,” it said.
But according to the Nature report cited above, the fast spread of Omicron does not necessarily mean antibodies are totally ineffective against the coronavirus mutant.
“If Omicron can dodge neutralizing antibodies, it does not mean that immune responses triggered by vaccination and prior infection will offer no protection against the variant. Immunity studies suggest that relatively low levels of neutralizing antibodies may protect people from severe forms of COVID-19, says Miles Davenport, an immunologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia,” Nature said.
Nevertheless, the report adds, “The threat of Omicron has prompted some rich countries, such as the United Kingdom, to accelerate and broaden the roll-out of COVID vaccine booster doses. But it’s not yet clear how effective these additional doses will be.”
Meanwhile, British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline said yesterday that its Covid-19 antibody treatment, approved in the UK, appeared to be effective against the omicron variant of coronavirus, according to early data from laboratory studies.
The UK’s drugs regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, said a clinical trial showed a single dose of the treatment reduced the risk of hospitalisation and death by 79% in high-risk adults with symptomatic Covid-19 infection and was most effective when taken soon after the onset of symptoms.
“To be crystal clear — we have far more tools to fight the variant than we had at this time last year,” Rochelle P Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a White House coronavirus briefing the day before yesterday.
‘Omicron not that scary’
Immunologist Satyajit Rath says the variant is likely to be spreading very fast. However, according to his understanding, the variant will not cause a more severe disease. The effectiveness of vaccines may get reduced by the new variant, but they will not be rendered ineffective by the variant.
A similar opinion was echoed by the DG Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Dr Shekhar C Mande, who told news agency ANI that while the situation is a cause of concern, it is not alarming.
“The surveillance is on like it always is. So, if the virus reaches India we will come to know. We are observing the situation in other countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and of course hotspot South Africa and it is a bit concerning but I would not say alarming,” he reportedly said.
International experts also feel the same about Omicron. Dr Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of the South African Medical Association, told Reuters that on Nov. 18 she noticed seven patients at her clinic who had symptoms different from the dominant Delta variant, albeit “very mild”.