A new variant of the Sars_Cov_2 virus, first reported in South Africa on November 24, has become a cause for serious concern for the global community. The virus, called Omicron, has been categorised as a Variant of Concern (VOC) by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on November 26.
Besides, South Africa, its presence has been reported in the United Kingdom, Botswana and Hong Kong. There are apprehensions that it might have travelled to other countries like Germany and the Czech Republic. It has not been reported in India so far.
The available epidemiological and clinical evidence so far shows that it is highly infectious. It is not clear that this new variant has the capability to escape the antibody present in a vaccinated or naturally recovered person.
“So far, there is not enough data on this variant to know its immune evading or severity property, as it will take 10-15 days to understand the true mortality of a variant. However, looking at the data from South Africa, its infectivity is very high. The R0 (rate of infection) of this variant is calculated to be 2 which is higher than the delta variant (1.64),” Gyaneshwar Chaubey, a professor of genetics at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), said.
Though the health experts and scientists in India have advised caution yet they feel that the current immune profile of the majority of the population in India makes them less vulnerable to Omicron as compared to any other country in the world.
They are of the view that according to the present information about the new variant, there is a low probability that it will drive a third wave as big as the second one in India.
So, what’s so special about the immune profile of the Indian population?
Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil, Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Institute of Epidemiology says that in India a large percentage of the population are naturally-recovered and have acquired a beautiful natural antibody.
“The important question is, “Will Omicron infect previously infected and recovered people?” It is important because in India a large number of people are already infected during the second wave,” Dr Muliyil said.
He added, “I cannot give you a definite answer at present but if the variant has been infecting the re-infected person, there should have been a big way of infection in Africa. But that hasn’t happened yet.”
Dr Muliyil also says that despite multiple mutations, the new variant hasn’t shown any clinical or epidemiological evidence of nastiness as of now.
Public health experts also say that with over 120 crore doses of vaccine administered to people, vaccine-acquired antibodies is also widely present among Indians.
“So if the virus escapes the vaccine-acquired antibody and causes severity then the Western countries will have a challenging time as a majority of the population have the vaccine-acquired antibody,” Chaubey said.
“However, in India, natural antibody, which has been found to be superior of all the antibodies till date, dominates among Indian population. Hence, we seem to be comparatively well-placed,” he added.
Dr Muliyil seconds Prof Chaubey and says, “If Omicron will escape all immunity then in that case the whole world will face another epidemic. But, that is something in the future. Remember if that happens, none of the vaccines will work then.”
What makes things more challenging for South Africa is that the previous waves have not infected many people as in India as well as the single dose vaccination in South Africa is just 28.7 and double dose 24.1, while in India it is 56.6 and 31.2 respectively.
Dr Ishwarprasad Gilada, among the first infectious diseases experts who raised the alarm against AIDS in India in 1985, says that the naturally recovered persons in India are not evenly distributed and there are certain districts in which only 40 to 50 per cent of people have recovered from Covid-19.
“It might be true that 90 per cent of people have natural antibodies in Delhi but that’s not the case in many districts in India. My concern is that we need to speed up the vaccination drive in such areas so that we can provide protection cover to as many people as possible,” Dr Gilada said.