India braces for third Covid wave after omicron found in megacities

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The variant has been detected in several of the country's densely populated megacities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Jaipur and Pune. - AP Photo/Channi Anand
The variant has been detected in several of the country's densely populated megacities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Jaipur and Pune. - AP Photo/Channi Anand

India is- scrambling to prepare for a third wave of Covid-19 after cases of the omicron variant were detected across many of its major cities over the weekend.

There are now 21 confirmed cases of omicron – a rise from just two on Friday – but the variant has been detected in several of the country's densely populated megacities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Jaipur and Pune, prompting fears it will spread widely.

So far the majority of detected cases have been in travellers arriving from African countries, including South Africa, where the variant was first detected. However, doctors told the Telegraph they had no doubt the omicron variant was already spreading across the country – although it could take up to one month to confirm cases by genetic sequencing.

“It’s almost certain that omicron is spreading within the community in India. While we don’t know how extensively or how fast, we do know there have been cases detected without any link to international travel,” said Dr Swapneil Parikh, one of India’s leading Covid-19 experts.

“Additionally, we have to remember that what we detect is as good as our genomic surveillance. Even with the best genomic surveillance we are only going to detect cases after there has been some spread in the community,” he added.

The Indian government is coming under pressure to suspend travel to southern Africa and other countries where omicron cases have been detected, including the UK.

“It is being reported that the gestational period in [the] case of omicron could be more than other variants. This means an infected person may go undetected at the airport,” said Satyendar Jain, Delhi’s health minister, on Sunday, after the city recorded its first omicron case in a traveller from Tanzania.

As of December 1, passengers arriving from "at risk" countries - including the UK, other European nations, China and Brazil - will receive a PCR test on arrival and undergo seven-days of home quarantine.

Individual Indian states have implemented stricter measures. For example, the western Indian state of Maharashtra has introduced a seven-day institutional quarantine for arrivals from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

India had planned to fully restart international commercial flights on December 15 after an 18-month hiatus, but this has now been postponed.

Cities across India have been increasing the number of hospital beds and importing oxygen from abroad to prepare for the expected spread of omicron.

Delhi, which experienced some of the most desperate scenes during India’s devastating second wave, as Covid-19 patients died outside their homes and outside at-capacity hospitals, has set aside 30,000 oxygen beds, including 10,000 ICU beds, and imported oxygen from China.

"Right now we are creating Covid-19 isolation areas in and outside of ICUs and we are putting up an oxygen plant. Many hospitals in Delhi now have these compared to the second wave and there are also more ventilators," said Dr Sumit Ray, Head of Department, Critical Care Medicine, at Holy Family Hospital in Delhi.

"At the individual hospital level, preparation is better. But, we need better coordination - a command centre to coordinate the movement of patients and ambulances. Last time, we lost a lot of people as they searched hospitals for available beds and oxygen."

But there are concerns over staffing. India had a shortage of 600,000 doctors and two million nurses even before Covid-19, and Indian medical staff have regularly held protests over short-staffing and late payment since the onset of the pandemic.

India, home to 1.38 billion people, has also only vaccinated 51 per cent of its adult population, with tens of millions of people not receiving their second doses as complacency grew this Autumn as new daily cases dipped.

The Indian government has now announced plans to carry out door-to-door vaccination campaigns before omicron spreads further.

The eastern Indian union territory of Puducherry has threatened legal action against citizens who refused vaccinations and in the southern state of Kerala, unvaccinated citizens will no longer be eligible for free Covid-19 healthcare.

India is also expected to U-turn and give approval for Covid-19 booster doses for its elderly and immunocompromised citizens.

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