The World Health Organisation on Friday said that imposing lockdown must only be used as a last resort to curb the transmission of Omicron as it could prove to be very costly. The new Omicron Covid variant has over 30 mutations on the spike protein that the virus employs to affect human cells. The variant, initially detected in South Africa, has spread in over 24 countries, including India, Sri Lanka, the US, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK.
Preliminary evidence suggests higher transmissibility and potential immune escape in the variant. This might lead to a surge in cases. More studies to evaluate Omicron's transmissibility, severity, reinfection risk, and immune escape potential are underway. However, "it is reasonable to assume that currently available vaccines offer protection against severe disease and death", WHO South-East Asia Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh said.
"Strengthening surveillance to rapidly detect importation of any new variant and transmission of existing virus and its variants, implementing calibrated public health and social measures and scaling up vaccination coverage, should continue to be our focus," she added. She further called for upping efforts to increase vaccination coverage and applying a multi-layered risk mitigation approach to possibly delay the export/import of the new variant.
Many countries, including the US and the UK, have imposed travel bans or quarantines for travellers from a number of African countries after news of the new variant. But blanket travel bans will not prevent international spread, says Singh. Instead, they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. Such bans can also have an adverse impact on global health efforts during a pandemic. It further disincentivises countries from reporting and sharing epidemiological and sequencing data.
"The option of imposing lockdown to curtail virus transmission, though effective, is a very costly measure and should be used as a last resort. We cannot and should not let the virus and its variants spread and mutate further and continue to challenge us. We need to do everything we can to curtail their spread. We know what to do. The pandemic has lasted just too long and is draining our precious human and other resources. We need to stop this," the Regional Director said.
Even with emerging variants, the ways of combating infection are the use of masks, physical distancing, ventilation of indoor space, crowd avoidance, and hand hygiene, she said. Even if there is no increase in severity, an increase in cases may overwhelm healthcare systems, causing increased morbidity and mortality. Countries should be ready to escalate public health and social measures in a timely manner to avoid overburdening health care services, Singh advised.