LONDON: The new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the Coronavirus has popped up in more European countries, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread.ln view of the possible threat that the new COVID-19 variant can pose to the nation, the Government of India (GoI) has asked all states and UTs to focus on intensive containment, active surveillance, enhanced testing, monitoring of hotspots, increased coverage of vaccination and augmentation of health infrastructure.Listing a series of measures which states and UTs should undertake, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan also stressed on rigorous surveillance of international passengers, ensuring prompt dispatch of samples for genome sequencing and strict enforcement of Covid-appropriate behaviour to effectively manage this Variant of Concern (VoC).As a proactive step, the government has already placed nations, where this VoC has been found, in the category of ‘at risk’ countries for additional follow-up measures of international travellers coming into lndia from these destinations, he said in a letter dated November 27.“ln view of the possible threat that this VoC can pose to the nation, it is imperative that the intensive containment, active surveillance, increased coverage of vaccination and Covid- appropriate behaviour must be enforced in the field in a very proactive manner to effectively manage this VoC,” Bhushan said.The health secretary said it is essential that the disease surveillance network in the country is geared up for rigorous follow-up of international travellers from all countries, especially those designated as ‘at risk’.There is already a reporting mechanism for obtaining past travel details of passengers coming through international flights, he said, adding this should be reviewed and the protocol provided by the ministry should be strictly ensured, including testing on disembarkation of travellers coming from ‘at risk’ countries and sending all positive samples for genome sequencing to INSACOG labs in a prompt manner.Emphasising that ample testing infrastructure need to be operationalised to tackle any surge due to this mutated virus, Bhushan said it has been observed that the overall testing as well as the proportion of RT-PCR tests have declined in some states.“ln the absence of sufficient testing, it is extremely difficult to determine the true level of infection spread. States must strengthen the testing infrastructure and strictly implement the testing guidelines,” he said.Bhushan also stressed on continued monitoring of hotspots, the areas where recent cluster of positive cases have emerged.“ln all such ‘hotspots’, saturation testing and sending of positive samples quickly for genome sequencing to designated INSACOG labs must be ensured in collaboration with Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of lndia, and the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). States should keep a close check on the emerging trend of cases and the positivity in an area and quickly delineate hotspots for effective containment of COVID-19,” he said.The health secretary said states should aim at achieving positivity rate below 5 per cent while focusing on increasing the number of tests and share of RT-PCR tests to aid in early identification.“Having adequate availability of health facilities across the state is essential to ensure that there are no delays in providing care,” he said, adding that trained human resources, infrastructure, logistics and procurement should be planned and strengthened, considering the geographical spread of the pandemic, and there shall be no compromise in providing prompt, quality treatment to patients.Bhushan urged the states to optimally utilise the financial support provided by Government of lndia under ERCP 1 and 2 diligently.INSACOG has been established to monitor the circulating variants in the country, he said, underlining it is important that states must significantly increase sampling from the general population for genome sequencing by sending these samples to INSACOG lab network as per the policy.He also urged states and UTs to hold regular press briefings.“We have seen in the last surges in the country that discourse on Covid is often influenced by misinformation leading to anxiety in the masses. To address this, all states should proactively and regularly address the concerns of community through press briefings and state bulletins providing evidence-based information,” Bhushan said in the letter.States may also ensure that the community is well-informed regarding the measures undertaken and be advised to follow measures like Covid-appropriate behaviour and getting vaccinated.He said it is critical for states and UTs to adhere to the overarching ‘Test-Track-Treat Vaccinate and Covid-appropriate behaviour’ principle to ensure stringent implementation of containment measures as per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) guidelines.“I’m sure that under your continued leadership we will be able to maintain the momentum and build on the progress made so far to address the latest threat of the pandemic. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare assures of all requisite support to the states and UTs,” Bhushan said.The new, potentially more contagious B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from South Africa on November 24 and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.It was on Friday designated as a “Variant of Concern” by the WHO, which named it Omicron. A variant of concern is the WHO’s top category of worrying COVID-19 variants.The UK on Sunday tightened its rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two cases. New cases were confirmed Saturday in Germany and Italy, with Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong also reporting that the variant has been found in travellers.In the US, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the United States, too.We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility … it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over, Fauci said on NBC television.Because of fears that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped.Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than five million lives around the world, countries are on high alert. Many have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant delta variant.In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take targeted and precautionary measures after two people tested positive for the new variant in England.Right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximise our defences, he told a news conference.Among the measures announced, Johnson said anyone arriving in England must take a PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day after their arrival and self-isolate until they provide a negative test. And if someone tests positive for the omicron variant, then he said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status currently close contacts are exempt from quarantine rules if they are fully vaccinated.He also said mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required and said the independent group of scientists that advises the British government on the rollout of coronavirus vaccines has been asked to accelerate the vaccination program. This could involve widening the booster program to younger age groups, reducing the time period between a second dose and a booster and allowing older children to get a second dose.From today we’re going to boost the booster campaign,” he said.Britain’s Department of Health said the two cases found in the UK were linked and involved travel from southern Africa. One of the two new cases was in the southeastern English town of Brentwood, while the other was in the central city of Nottingham. The two confirmed cases are self-isolating with their households while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.The British government also added four more countries Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia onto the country’s travel red list from Sunday. Six others Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were added Friday. That means anyone permitted to arrive from those destinations will have to quarantine.Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied.Despite the banning of flights, there are mounting concerns that the variant has already been widely seeded around the world.Italy and Germany were the latest to report confirmed cases of the omicron variant.An Italian who had travelled to Mozambique on business landed in Rome on November 11 and returned to his home near Naples. He and five family members, including two school-age children, have since tested positive, the Italian news agency LaPresse said. All are isolating in the Naples suburb of Caserta in good condition with light symptoms.The variant was confirmed by Sacco hospital in Milan, and Italy’s National Health Institute said the man had received two doses of the vaccine. Italy’s health ministry is urging all regions to increase its tracing of the virus and sequencing to detect cases of the new variant first identified in South Africa.In Germany, the Max von Pettenkofer Institute, a Munich-based microbiology centre, said the omicron variant was confirmed in two travellers who arrived on a flight from South Africa on November 24. The head of the institute, Oliver Keppler, said that genome sequencing has yet to be completed, but it is proven without doubt that it is this variant, German news agency dpa reported.The Dutch public health institute said the omicron variant was probably found in a number of the tested persons who were isolated after arriving Friday in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa.
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