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Updated 13 January 2022

A potentially worrisome variant of COVID-19 was recently discovered in South Africa and has been detected in several countries in Africa and some European countries. The latest iteration of the novel coronavirus is designated ‘the Omicron variant’, and the World Health Organization (WHO) promptly classified Omicron as a Variant of Concern (VOA).

How is the Omicron variant affecting travel in India? Has the new strain been detected in India yet? Here’s everything we know so far about the variant in India.

B.1.1.529 — What is the Omicron variant?

By its very nature, viruses mutate. The B.1.1.529 variant, also known as the Omicron variant, is a product of such a process and has recently been classified as a VOA by the WHO.

The first confirmed Omicron infection was from a specimen collected in early November 2021 in South Africa amidst a steep rise in infection cases. While it’s not yet clear whether the variant has been the driving force behind the country’s rapid spread, countries worldwide have implemented travel bans and restrictions for travellers from South Africa and other African countries.

What are the risks associated with the Omicron variant?

While information is currently limited, Omicron’s VOA classification by the WHO was primarily based on many mutations, some of which are concerning.

Preliminary evidence suggests that these observed mutations may cause the Omicron variant to pose an increased risk of reinfection compared to other VOCs.

As for transmissibility and severity, it’s too soon to tell whether Omicron poses a higher degree of risk compared to the delta variant. Despite the rising COVID-19 and hospitalization cases in South Africa, WHO has yet to attribute them solely to the Omicron variant.

WHO also stated on Monday that the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges that could have severe consequences in some places.

Epidemiological studies and observations are currently underway, and we’ll likely learn more in the coming weeks whether or not the extent of these mutations does indeed correlate with heightening risks of transmissibility and/or severity.

What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

Again, information is limited. According to WHO, there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with the Omicron variant are different from those from other variants.

According to consultant pulmonologist and bronchoscopist, Dr Sonam Solanki at Masina Hospital here are some of the main Omicron symptoms that you should watch out for:

  • body ache
  • generalized weakness
  • fatigue
  • dry cough
  • headache

As per the WHO, COVID-19 patients will typically exhibit one of these primary symptoms:

  • fever
  • dry cough
  • tiredness

Less common symptoms:

  • aches and pains
  • sore throat
  • diarrhoea
  • conjunctivitis
  • headache
  • loss of taste or smell
  • a rash on the skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes

More serious symptoms:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • loss of speech or mobility, or confusion
  • chest pain

As per a study conducted by UK’s medical journal – BMJ, the most common omicron symptoms are a runny nose, headache, and fatigue.

Where has the Omicron variant been detected?

According to reports, the Omicron variant has been detected in around 89 countries including South Africa, Botswana, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Cyprus, Canada, Czech Republic, Cuba, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ghana, Hungary, Hong Kong, India, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Senegal, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Turkey, the Netherlands, the UAE, the UK, and the US.

While countries around the world have been quick to close their borders to South Africa and others, the possibility of the Omicron variant having already spread undetected to other countries remains. The list will be updated accordingly.

Has India recorded any Omicron strain cases?

According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the country has so far reported 4,461 cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus. The state of Maharashtra recorded a total of 1,247 infections of the Omicron variant. Omicron cases in Delhi have increased to 546. Maharashtra and Rajasthan continue to contribute the highest number of new Omicron cases to the country’s total caseload.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has issued a distinct set of SOP’s and strict home quarantine measures for international passengers arriving from ‘at-risk’ countries to Mumbai.

Are vaccines effective against the Omicron variant?

Even though it is not yet clear whether the effectiveness of current COVID vaccines is less effective against the Omicron variant. However, COVID vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta.

As per the recent EMA press release, recent studies show that vaccination continues to produce a remarkable level of protection against critical disease and hospitalization linked to the Omicron variant. People who have been administered with a booster shot are better protected than those who have only received their primary course.

Data from South Africa suggests that those who have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine should have up to 70% protection for hospitalization. While, similar data from the UK shows that protection declines a few months after vaccination, protection from hospitalization rises again to 90% after a booster shot.

As vaccine companies continue to advance the success of a variant-specific vaccine for Omicron, studies have shown that three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was able to neutralize the Omicron variant thereby expanding the antibody titers by 25-fold, while two doses show significantly reduced neutralization titers.

Omicron variant and India travel

Please note that India has postponed the resumption of international flights from December 15 due to the emergence of the Covid-19 Omicron variant. The authorities in India have also revised their travel guidelines for International travellers amidst the outbreak of the new variant. The Centre has now mandated submitting:

  • 14 days of travel details and,
  • uploading negative Covid (RT-PCR) test results on the Air Suvidha portal before the journey.

The test will have to be conducted within 72 hours before undertaking the journey. When boarding the flight, only asymptomatic travellers will be allowed to board after the thermal screening. All passengers will be advised to download the Aarogya Setu app on their mobile devices.

International passengers arriving through seaports/land ports will also have to undergo the same protocol, except that online registration is not currently available for such travellers.

All international travellers will need to undergo a mandatory 7-day home quarantine and then follow up with an RT-PCR test on day 8. Travellers who test positive during home quarantine period will be subjected to an additional quarantine for 14 days and tested as per ICMR protocol. Children under 5 are exempt from pre- and post-arrival testing.

The authorities have also released a list of nineteen ‘at-risk’ countries, including countries in Europe including The United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, Botswana, China, Mauritius, Ghana, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Hong Kong, Israel, Ethiopia, Zambia, Congo, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Tunisia.. Travellers from these countries will have to follow additional guidelines such as mandating testing on arrival, home quarantine for seven days on a negative result, and a retest on the eighth day before entering the country.

Most states in India are also mandating a pre-departure PCR test certificate which should be uploaded on the Air Suvidha portal. Check out our article for more details on the state-wise entry restrictions to India.

Please note that passengers coming from the ‘at-risk‘ countries will have to mandatorily pre-book for the on-arrival RT-PCR test. The pre-booking testing will be implemented at six major airports in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad. However, in case a person is unable to do so they will NOT be denied to board a flight. It will be the responsibility of the airline to register the passenger for pre-booking.

The authorities have further informed that the Air Suvidha Portal will be modified to allow the passengers to mandatorily pre-book the RT PCR test if they are coming from the countries ‘at risk’ or have visited ‘at risk’ countries in the last 14 days. The link to the airport website would be provided on the Air Suvidha platform and would be displayed to the passengers while filling up the self-declaration form.