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India has detected two cases of the omicron variant in the southern state of Karnataka, health officials said on Thursday, and urged people to get vaccinated as the country braces to deal with the new threat.
Two men, 46 and 66, who tested positive for the new coronavirus variant had come from overseas. Officials did not disclose whether they were Indian or foreign nationals to protect their privacy.
They said the infected persons had “mild symptoms” and all those who had been in contact with them have been traced and are being tested for the variant that is causing global concern.
“We need not panic, but awareness is the need of the hour,” Balram Bhargava, the head of the Indian Council of Medical Research told a news conference.
The omicron variant has been found in India at a time when coronavirus cases have reduced dramatically in the country after it was ravaged by a deadly second wave caused by the highly transmissible delta variant in April and May.
The World Health Organization has warned that omicron poses a high infection risk around the globe.
On Wednesday, India put on hold plans to restart international flights from December 15, although it has not imposed a blanket travel ban on any country.
It has also tightened testing and quarantine norms for travelers from overseas—those arriving from countries identified as “at risk” will be tested on arrival and cannot leave the airport without their test results.
Mumbai, one of the cities that was worst hit by the pandemic, has imposed mandatory weeklong quarantines for passengers coming from “at risk” countries.
"We are immediately checking suspicious cases and conducting genome sequencing," Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya told Parliament on Tuesday. “We have learned a lot during the COVID crisis. Today, we have a lot of resources and laboratories. We can manage any situation."
The government, however, has indicated that it is not contemplating any drastic curbs in the wake of the omicron variant arriving in India, where a strict lockdown last year had decimated the economy.
But officials are urging people to get inoculated. “Vaccination is the most critical tool to fight this virus and this is a tool we have in plenty,” Lav Agarwal, joint health secretary said referring to the millions of vaccine doses being produced in the country.
Although there has been no widespread vaccine hesitancy in India, public health experts say that the drastic reduction in cases in recent months had led to complacency among many people, who are not coming forth to get their second doses. While 49% of Indians are fully inoculated, as many as 84% in the country of 1.3 billion have only got one shot.
India is not yet administering the vaccine to those under 18 or giving booster shots, saying the first priority is to ensure that all eligible people first get vaccinated.
For days now, India, which is the world’s second worst-hit country by the pandemic, has been reporting less than 10,000 new infections a day. But public health experts warned that the arrival of the new variant in India would mean that the number of cases would rise.
“The variant was bound to slip through sooner or later, because travel bans don’t work,” said Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “There will be some pressure on the health system, and plans are being made to ramp up hospital capacity. But although it is too early to say, so far most of the indications are that omicron is only causing mild illness.”
Experts are still assessing the new variant for risk of higher transmission and how it reacts to vaccines.