Omicron: India’s top genome sequencing experts and virologists say there is no evidence of the new variant being more transmissible than Delta

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Omicron: India’s top genome sequencing experts and virologists say there is no evidence of the new variant being more transmissible than Delta
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  • The newly emerged COVID-19 strain Omicron possesses a high risk of infection surges that could have ‘severe consequences’, however, no death has been reported so far, said WHO on Monday.
  • But Dr. Anurag Agrawal, a top genome sequencing expert, called the above study ‘bad science’ in an interview with CNBC-TV18.
  • Another eminent virologist told news agency PTI that the COVID-19 vaccines will not become useless.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday that the newly emerged COVID-19 strain Omicron possesses a high risk of infection surges that could have ‘severe consequences’. However, no death has been reported so far and further research is needed to assess the potential of immunity induced by vaccines, WHO further added.

According to a preliminary analysis and experts' suggestion cited by The Times of India, Omicron strain of COVID-19 has six times higher potential to spread than Delta variant, which could evade the immune system and may cause vaccine breakthrough infections.

But Dr. Anurag Agrawal, an Indian pulmonologist, a medical researcher and the director of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, called the above study a ‘bad science’ during an interview with CNBC-TV18.

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He said, “Any study concluding [Omicron is] six times more transmissible than Delta variant, based on the replacement of Delta, is based on ‘bad science’”.

While explaining why he used the term ‘bad science’ for the above study he said, “If two viruses are growing and competing with each other, it is easy to compare the transmissibility of both. If one of them has already had a big surge and there is an immunity in its population, which is declining and a new variant comes in which does not have immunity and starts rising, it can displace the other one without going multiple times more transmissible. This must be kept in our mind while we interpret the WHO statement saying ‘we don’t have enough information or data’”.

The conclusion allegedly reached by scientists is based on the fact that the number of Omicron cases increased faster compared to Delta.

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He further added, “We know that the Omicron variant is heavily mutated. All major sites where antibodies are expected to bind show mutation. Existing immunity is greatly reduced when protecting against Omicron. However, using graphs to denote transmissibility Of Omicron is bad science”.

WHO in its updated announcement mentioned that it is not clear whether Omicron is more transmissible as compared to other variants, including Delta. The information regarding the transmissibility and severity of the new strain is still not available.

“We must not panic, and we don't know how much more or less transmissibility it has, we don’t know much [sic] mutations it has, it could be more transmissible or it could be slightly less transmissible,” Dr Agrawal said.

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WHO said in its statement that the severity of this disease is not very clear.

Commenting on the above statement, Agrawal further said, “What we so far know is the number of hospitalisations has started to rise, but [this] itself doesn’t mean very much as it is obvious that the hospitalisation will rise as the cases will rise. It is nothing unexpected we have seen so far.”

He further highlighted, “If we were to see any severity, we will see it probably next week or in the next few weeks, WHO is making a correct point, it is early days to predict anything”.

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Another eminent virologist Dr. Shahid Jameel, who is a former head of the advisory group of the Indian SARS-COV-2 Genomics Consortia (INASACOG) and currently the director of Trivedi School of Biosciences, told news wire agency PTI, “A ‘very large’ number of Indians are likely to remain protected from Omicron or any other variant of COVID-19 and there is no need to panic”.

Talking about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine, he said, “My hunch is that vaccine effectiveness against this variant may dip a few points, but vaccines will not become useless. They will continue to protect from severe disease.”

Several countries are shutting down their borders in the wake of the new variant. India was all set to fully open up its international air travel on December 15, but is still yet to make a final call after reports of spread of the Omicron variant has emerged. “Blanket shutting off the borders is a bad idea, especially for countries who are not acutely suffering with the ongoing wave. Countries should be implementing standard measures for public health responsiveness including screening and quarantine,” Dr. Agrawal added.

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