Fears are growing rapidly in India that a massive third wave of Covid infections is building, as coronavirus infections may yet again spiral out of control, largely driven by the new Omicron variant.
Last night local time, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) issued a warning to the country’s government that a third wave is inevitable unless “adequate measures” are being taken as soon as possible.
One of the suggestions the IMA made was to start vaccinating children aged 12 to 18 immediately, as the Omicron variant increasingly takes hold of large parts of the country.
“At a time when India is limbing back to normalcy, this is a great setback,” the medical body’s chief said.
“If we do not take adequate measures, we may have a massive third wave.”Indian Medical Association warning
Amid the threat posed by Omicron, the IMA urged the central government to make available “additional” doses of Covid vaccine for healthcare staff, frontline workers and immunocompromised individuals, as well as their families.
“At this juncture, IMA also appeals to the government to officially announce additional dose (of vaccine) be given to healthcare, frontline workers and immunocompromised individuals to augment the immunity,” the doctors’ body said.
A third wave may have a disastrous impact on India’s economy, which already took an enormous hit during the last wave. Millions of small businesses were forced to close and a harsh lockdown brought economic activity to a near stand-still.
India reported 8,439 new cases of Covid-19 and 195 deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the country’s health ministry early this morning.
India’s positive cases currently account for around 93,733, the lowest in more than 500 days. Moreover, at 98.4 per cent, current recovery rate is the highest since March of last year.
However, experts and medics across India are warning that – unless measures are being taken – India will see the same wave of infections currently taking place in South Africa, where Omicron was first detected.
In South Africa, infections are currently shooting up.
According to John Hopkins University data, South Africa had more than 107,000 new Covid cases in the last three weeks, with 40,000 new cases in the last five days, according to South Afrcia’s National Institute For Communicable Diseases.
Omicron vs Delta
One of the main reasons infections are climbing so rapidly is because, according to a new analysis published over the weekend, Omicron is spreading twice as quickly as the Delta variant.
Scientists of the South African Covid-19 Modelling Consortium team, led by Carl Pearson, a mathematical modeller at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that – by looking at Covid cases across South Africa’s nine provinces – the Omicron variant’s R value is nearly 2.5 times higher than that of Delta.
Variwith around 90 per cent of all new infections in the Johannesburg area now said to be the Omicron variant of the Coronavirus, which means the previously dominant but much more lethal Delta mutation is being pushed aside.
Some experts are therefore even urging countries to drop restrictions and let Omicron spread so the more infectious but less severe variant can kill off Delta quicker.
One thing that does concern the WHO and medical scientists, however, is a new study in South Africa has found that the new Omicron variant has “substantial” ability to re-infect people who previously had Covid-19 simply because it is able to evade immunity systems in people’s bodies.
The study estimated that the risk of reinfection for November 1 to 27, when Omicron started circulating, was 2.39 times higher than in the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020.
In contrast, the risk of reinfection in South Africa was lower in the Beta and Delta waves than in the first wave.
The findings suggest Omicron could cause a wave of infections in people with some prior immunity.
The authors concluded: “Population-level evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection. In contrast, there is no population-wide epidemiological evidence of immune escape associated with the Beta or Delta variants.”
Reinfection a serious risk
The NCID study comes shortly after Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, regional emergency director for the World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for Africa, told a press briefing last week week there are concerns about reinfections.
“We are seeing an increase for Omicron. And that speaks to the fact that in our population with a high seroprevalence – so where many people have had previous infection – we believe that their previous infection does not provide them protection from infection due to Omicron,” she explained.
Gueye added that the susceptibility of the population of South Africa “is greater now because previous infection used to protect against Delta and now with Omicron and doesn’t seem to be the case”.
“We believe that vaccines will still, however, protect against severe disease because we’ve seen this decrease in protection using vaccines with the other variants – the vaccines have always held out to prevent severe disease and admission into hospital from death.”
Discussing the Omicron variant and its suspected ability to evade immunity systems, Professor Francois Balloux, from University College London (UCL), said the findings were not surprising given the number of mutations in the new variant.
“The [NCID] study is competently performed and highly timely as it provides the first direct evidence for the increased ability of the Omicron variant to partially bypass prior host immunity conferred by prior infection.”
“Risk of reinfection by the Omicron variant was estimated to be around three times higher than by the Alpha and Delta variant,” Balloux said.
He pointed out that South Africa has a low vaccination rate and a large proportion of the population has been infected during previous Covid-19 waves.
Moreover, the population of South Africa is fairly young with a median age of 27.6 years.
“As such, the results from this study are not directly portable to other settings such as Europe or North America, and more data will be needed before we can make more any robust prediction about the potential threat posed by a global spread of the Omicron variant in different parts of the world,” Balloux concluded.
Covid vaccines not up to date
With regards to vaccines, most pharmaceutical giants have said they have started to tweak vaccines in order to make them ‘Omicron-proof’.
Novavax said it has “already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of Omicron and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks”.
Moderna said: “Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern. This strategy includes three levels of response should the currently authorized 50 µg (microgram) booster dose of mRNA-1273 prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant.”