PM To Chair Meet On Covid Situation Amid Concerns Over New Strain Omicron


New Delhi:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will chair an important meeting, to be attended by top government officials, at 10.30 am on the COVID-19 and vaccination situation in the country.

The meeting comes amid rising global concern about the B.1.1.529 strain of the coronavirus, which has been red flagged by scientists over an alarmingly high number of mutations that might make the virus more resistant to vaccines, increase transmissibility and lead to more severe symptoms.

The B.1.1.529 variant – first detected in South Africa earlier this week, and since in Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium – has 50 mutation, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone.

The spike protein is the target of most current COVID-19 vaccines and is what the virus uses to unlock access to our body’s cells. Researchers are still trying to confirm whether this makes it more transmissible or lethal than earlier variants.

The B.1.1.529 strain has been labelled a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organization (WHO) has just renamed it Omicron. The ‘variant of concern’ tag puts it in the high-alert category, with the globally-dominant Delta, plus its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

On Thursday India called for rigorous screening of passengers from South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong, and the Health Ministry said: “This variant… has serious public health implications in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening of international travel.”

Last night the government said scheduled international passenger flights to and from India – suspended or restricted since the Covid lockdown in March 2020 – could return to normal, but only for countries not deemed ‘at risk’ by the Health Ministry.

South Africa, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong are on the ‘at risk’ list as of Thursday night, meaning only 75 per cent of scheduled passenger flights will be allowed till further notice.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, Singapore and Israel have stopped flights from South Africa, Botswana and four other African nations. Germany and Italy have also banned most travel from South Africa, news agency AFP said. South Africa has criticised these decisions as “rushed”.

The WHO has cautioned countries against immediately imposing travel restrictions, calling for a “risk-based and scientific approach”. Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, this week also underlined the importance of ensuring complete vaccination.