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Does Omicron threaten India’s COVID-19 decline?

The news of a new strain of COVID-19 — designated as Omicron, or B.1.1.529, that was first detected in South Africa — has put recent news of India’s consistent decline in COVID-19 cases into question. With a new strain on the horizon, will India continue its success story in keeping COVID-19 under control?


Confirmed cases of COVID-19 concept. a covid-19 blood test tube with result of positive on yellow background the X has clipping path and can be removed. COVID-19 testing concept. Antibody tests concept. Image credit: 罗 宏志 / 123rf. COVID-19 cases now number at one million: concept. Testing illustration. Symptomatic COVID-19 illustration. Cases of COVID-19 in India concept. COVID-19 clusters concept.. new covid-19 variant mutant strain long covid. COVID-19 cases concept. Even after recovery from COVID-19, long-COVID symptoms may persist. Image credit: 罗 宏志 / 123rf. B.1.617 concept. black fungus. Delta plus variant concern. Delta variant concept. Excess mortality illustration. Fresh COVID-19 cases illustration.
Image credit: 罗 宏志 / 123rf

A recent Health Issues India article noted that the consistent decline in cases — and optimism that this naturally brings with it — has occurred before in India, with devastating consequences. “Complacency [resulting from the low number of cases] and so-called “pandemic fatigue” — describing the concept that people were tired of lockdown measures and chose to simply ignore them — led to mass crowds at public events. Religious festivals, as well as sporting events such as cricket saw crowds of thousands gathering, resulting in superspreader events that led to a second wave.”

News of the Omicron strain has spread worldwide, with many countries suggesting that further lockdown measures must be put in place to limit the spread. The strain has already been detected across the globe, with community spread already suspected in the UK. However, the virulence and severity of cases resulting from the strain is still a topic of debate.

“It presents mild disease with symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two not feeling well. So far, we have detected that those infected do not suffer loss of taste or smell. They might have a slight cough. There are no prominent symptoms. Of those infected some are currently being treated at home,” said Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, told Sputnik on Saturday.

“We will only know this after two weeks. Yes, it is transmissible, but for now, as medical practitioners, we do not know why so much hype is being driven as we are still looking into it. We will only know after two to three weeks as there are some patients admitted and these are young people aged 40 and younger,” Coetzee added.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said, “It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.” Monitoring is now taking place on individuals who have been infected by the new strain to analyse whether the new variant could cause more future issues compared to previous variants.

India has already faced significant additional waves of COVID-19, driven in part by emerging strains that would later go on to become prevalent across the globe. As noted by Health Issues India “Cases surged to an all-time high in mid-September of 2020, hitting what was then a record point of more than 100,000 new daily cases. Following this, cases began to gradually fall, with the international community at the time hailing India as a clear case of handling and curtailing a crisis. Cases plateaued and remained at a low point — though still ever-present — until late February.”

Across India’s second wave a number of new strains of COVID-19 were identified. Strains that have since become some of the dominant strains globally, going on to mutate further as they spread. The first of these was a “double mutant.” The double mutant, in which two base pairs of DNA are altered from the base strain — E484Q and L452R — was suggested by virologists to be both more contagious and capable of causing reinfection.

One factor contributing to the lower case rate India is currently reporting is the high number of people who already have antibodies against COVID-19. For many, this will be due to vaccination, for others, this will be the result of a previous infection. One of the prominent fears related to the new strain is the potential for reinfection of those who have already had the virus once. The WHO has stated that “preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron,” though these investigations are ongoing. 

At this stage information is limited. What can be said for certain is that India cannot afford to be complacent. Given the extent of the second wave it is demonstrable that there is always the possibility of another outbreak, falling back into old routines and not taking precautions could endanger India’s current low caseload.

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