New virus variant a wake-up call; test, track & trace strategies key till more data helps: Experts

The focus at the moment, she emphasized, needed to be on testing, tracking and tracing, especially those entering the country.

It is the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet that is now bothering scientists and experts around the world. Omicron or the SARS-COV-2 variant B.1.1.529 is the new concern and the question on everyone’s mind is will it supplant the dreaded delta variant now? It is still too early to conclusively answer, say experts and it will be few more weeks – perhaps another three to four weeks – to some data to give a more definitive response, they all say.

However, none of them seemed surprised with the news of a new variant because it is in the very nature of the virus
evolution journey. So, how do we ensure people stay safe for a variant that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has chosen to label it under the most serious category as a ‘variant of concern’? “Caution, monitoring and early response is yet again going to be critical in dealing with the new virus variant,” says Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the
chief scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO).

At work in office even on a weekend and speaking to Financial Express online on Saturday, November 27 th , Dr Swaminathan, said, typically it would take three to four weeks for the initial sets of data to start coming in from the laboratory studies. But right now, she said, “we feel countries need to strengthen their genomic surveillance and those doing so already to step it up further by reviewing their sampling strategy and perhaps increase their sampling to ensure all cases are broad-based and more representative and not narrow in their choice of hospital or a
geographical location.”

Emphasising representative sampling, she also favoured increased sequencing with at least 5 per cent of the samples, if not more, getting sequenced and the data getting submitted as quickly as possible to the public database called GISAID (that aims to help researchers understand how viruses evolve and spread).

She felt, this needs to be backed by research within each country as there could be other variants too and this needs to be tracked. This is because, she said, “we hope the vaccines will continue to stay effective against different variants because the vaccines are eliciting a broad-based immunity and therefore the focus all around has to be to increase the vaccination coverage.”

Coupled with this, she felt a clear need for constant monitoring to check if there is any case of waning immunity because that will really inform the country on the various options, including perhaps the need for a booster
programme and if so to which vulnerable group? “The new variant is therefore a wake- up call yet again at what viruses do and for all of us to be one step ahead, out preparedness has to be really strengthened,” she said.

Unanswered questions

India’s highly regarded virologist Dr Gangandeep Kang, said, “the new virus variant is raising many unanswered questions.” Indicating a few, the doctor, who is also the professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, said “since the virus is impacting those in the age group of between 18 and 34 what needs to be seen is whether it is because they are not vaccinated or this is the target age group that is more vulnerable to this variant.”

Also pointing out that it will take another three to four weeks to get answers to some obvious questions like how severe is the disease? Those getting infected are vaccinated or from an uninoculated population segment? At what rate are the cases rising? The focus at the moment, she emphasized, needed to be on testing, tracking and tracing, especially those entering the country.

Wearing masks and ensuring people get vaccinated has always been crucial and the doctor sees little reason for any let up on this basic precaution. The watchword, she said, was taking the reasonable precaution which is both masking and inoculation. The initial reports coming from South Africa, the doctor said, seemed to suggest
that the cases are rising and it is high on transmissibility and perhaps not very virulent but then we do not know this as yet and need to wait for more data and with it greater clarity on the way ahead.

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