The highly transmissible Omicron variant of Covid, which has so far been detected in more than 100 countries so far, may help the world get rid of the Delta strain that claimed so many lives across the globe, said health experts on Tuesday.
Omicron, first detected from southern Africa in late November, has become dominant in several countries including the US and the UK, outpacing the previously dominant Delta variant, which was considered to be the dominant strain in many countries until recently.
While Omicron is known to cause only mild disease, Delta has been more lethal leading to increased hospitalisation with drop in oxygen levels, pneumonia, and death.
"Omicron is a milder wave and will replace Delta, and may be good for the world," Dr. Vasant Nagvekar, Covid task force member of Maharashtra government, told IANS.
"Omicron is more transmissible, and it could also be immune-evasive (cause breakthrough infections in previously infected or vaccinated). But so far, there is no proof that it produces more severe infections," added Nagvekar, who is also Consultant, Infectious Diseases at Global Hospital, Mumbai.
The early data from South Africa has shown that most patients are younger and the variant produces milder infections.
"For now the variant also appears to be stable, with high transmissibility but low virulence, which perhaps explains the lack of surge in hospitalisations and deaths where it was earlier reported," Nagvekar said.
Meanwhile, what we need is vigilance, improving border surveillance, genomic sequencing, as well as vaccination cover, he noted.
"The best option for getting out of this phase of the pandemic is to ensure that people everywhere are fully vaccinated. As the virus continues to spread, there remain opportunities for new variants to emerge," Brian Wahl, Assistant Scientist, Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, US, told IANS.
"This is why it is so important to increase coverage of both doses in India and in countries where vaccine coverage is currently low, like in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa," he added.
Meanwhile, with more than 30 mutations on its spike protein, Omicron has the potential of evading vaccines as well as previous Covid infection induced immunity. Several studies have shown that two doses of existing Covid vaccines may not be effective against Omicron, while booster doses have shown promise.
India has also announced the roll out of booster doses, starting with healthcare workers from January next year.
"The protection provided by many vaccines can be reduced over time. Booster doses can help bring protection back up. However, the frequency with which boosters might be required is not known," Wahl said.
However, Nagvekar stated that "a booster dose, even if it works, is just a temporary fix. "We can't keep on taking boosters every six months and for every variant of concern that emerges. Equitable vaccine distribution, especially a vaccine that covers the most recent variant of concern is a possible and practical solution in the long term."
India will also start vaccinating children aged 15-18 from January.
While Covid as a whole has been mild for children, Omicron has raised concern with many kids being affected and hospitalised in the US, South Africa and the UK.
"Vaccine for kids is necessary. If Omicron cases rise, it's going to be challenging due to its faster spread," Nagvekar said.
Besides vaccines and booster doses, monoclonal antibodies and anti-Covid pills have been a great aid in the fight against Covid. While India had already approved monoclonal antibodies therapy for treating severe Covid, the country on Tuesday also granted emergency approval for US-based pharma company Merck's Covid pill molunapiravir. The pill has shown efficacy in curbing hospitalisation and death by 30 per cent.
The antiviral drug will be manufactured in India by 13 companies for restricted use under emergency situations for treatment of adult patients with Covid-19 and who have a high risk of progression of the disease.