Scientists in India say the country must step up plans to fight the Omicron variant that is already swamping Europe and the United States, despite high vaccination rates and exposure to the Delta variant.
At the height of India's second Covid wave in April and early May, the daily number of new cases often exceeded 400,000 with a highest single-day death toll of 4,529 fatalities.
Hospitals grappled with an acute shortage of lifesaving oxygen and medicine. Patients were denied beds and many died outside of care facilities because of lack of treatment.
Until a week ago, India was registering just 30 to 40 fresh Omicron cases a day - but the numbers are rising. With a third wave Omicron wave looking imminent among India's large population, there are fears the country will be unable to cope.
Lockdowns on cards
The Health Ministry has issued recommendations for state governments to implement new night-time lockdowns, ban large gatherings, and watch out for infection clusters.
The western state of Maharashtra recorded the highest number of the new variant cases, at 88, followed by Delhi with 67.
Given the high seropositivity (having antibodies) of Indians, many of the infected patients so far remain asymptomatic or have displayed mild symptoms.
A slew of studies by Indian scientists shows that amid rising cases of Omicron, the third wave may hit its peak in February next year.
“The report forecasts India's third wave of Covid-19 to start around mid-December 2021 and the cases to peak in the beginning of February 2022," Subhra Sankar Dhar, an associate professor of the, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, wrote in a recent paper.
The daily caseload is expected to rise as Omicron begins to displace Delta as the dominant variant, said the forecast.
Deadly second wave
While virologists believe there will undoubtedly be an expansion of symptomatic infections in India over the coming weeks and months, they also point out that the severity of the wave may not be as intense and crippling as was witnessed mid-2021.
“One redeeming factor is that, compared to the second wave, any third wave will hit a population that is expected to have substantial hybrid immunity, from infections during the Delta wave and vaccinations,” expert Gautam Menon told RFI.
Sixty percent of the eligible 944 million adult population in India is fully vaccinated, but there is still a larger pool of unvaccinated people.
In addition, the six-month period has lapsed, which means that many of those who got their first dose at the start of the vaccination programme are vulnerable to coronavirus infection. India has not considered authorizing booster doses yet.
State governments are working at a war footing by procuring buffer stocks of medicine and oxygen to mitigate any crisis and 48,000 ventilators have been distributed to states and more genome sequencing labs set up.
The ability to set up large quarantine and treatment facilities at least in the larger cities has been demonstrated. Also, oxygen availability, at least in urban India, is a largely solved problem.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a review meeting in New Delhi on the country’s Covid-19 preparedness attended by top officials of the health department and of the departments of biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and urban development
Modi asked officials present to ensure that health systems were in place until the level of districts to meet any challenges the spread of the omicron variant may pose, according to a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said the capital was making preparations to handle a potential outbreak of the omicron variant leading to 100,000 new cases a day.