The exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, possibly fuelled by the Omicron variant, is raising fears of a third wave of the pandemic in the country. On January 4, India logged over 37,000 new COVID-19 cases, a four-fold increase from 9195 new cases registered a week back on December 28. The numbers reported on January 4 mark the highest 24-hour load of new cases since early September 2021 and was the seventh consecutive day that country saw a rise in the daily case count
Following the last week’s figures, the cumulative tally of COVID-19 cases in India has reached 3,49,60,261. The active caseload has also been pushed to 1,71,830, accounting for 0.49 percent of the total cases while the national recovery rate was recorded at 98.13 percent, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The daily positivity rate was recorded at 3.24 percent on January 4 while the weekly positivity rate was recorded at 2.05 percent. A total of 4,82,017 people have died due to coronavirus in the country to date.
Last month, the World Health Organization warned of a tsunami of cases triggered by the delta and Omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2 across the world. The statement came in the backdrop of a record number of daily cases being reported from the United States and several European countries, a trend now being witnessed in other countries too, including India. India experienced a devastating second wave in April and May, with daily averages of around 400,000 cases at the peak of the crisis. Caseloads dropped significantly since then and for many months the national tally remained well under 10,000 cases a day.
The rise of Omicron and its role in driving the surge
In just a month of the first case of Omicron being reported in the county, the number of Omicron-caused cases has touched 1,892 as of January 4. Of these, 766 have recovered. While the sudden rise of COVID-19 cases in India coincides with the rapid emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it may still be premature to attribute the spike to this variant alone.
Maharashtra and Delhi remain the leading contributors of Omicron cases with 568 and 382 infections, respectively. Kerala, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu all feature in the top ten most-hit states due to the variant and have over 100 infections recorded so far. Telangana, Karnataka, Haryana and Odisha are other states in the top then list in India, according to the health ministry’s bulletin. A significant proportion of Omicron cases in India have been reported from the big cities of Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata which have a combined 75 percent share of infections caused by the variant.
Omicron was first identified by South African scientists in November 2021. The variant has rapidly spread around the globe, with places like the United States and the United Kingdom reporting massive surges. While governments try to assess the severity of the variant, scientists stress that it is too early to definitively say that Omicron is milder than the previous variants. Experts advise caution as the infectious nature of the variant with better immune-escape mechanisms could lead to a surge in cases, increasing the load on already strained healthcare systems. Experts also worry that the brunt of the current wave will fall on the elderly and the immunocompromised. Another challenge is that of preliminary experiments suggesting that most of the antibody treatments for the disease are powerless against Omicron.
Globally, Omicron’s emergence has coincided with the concept of waning immunity of the vaccinated population. A paper published in medRxiv December 2021 noted, however, that despite Omicron’s extensive mutations and reduced susceptibility to neutralizing antibodies, the majority of T-cell response, induced by vaccination or natural infection, cross-recognises the variant. It has been found that our immune system’s T cell response, which is responsible for killing infected cells in the body, therefore protecting us against severe disease and death, remains robust against an Omicron infection.
Initial data from South Africa, England, and Scotland released last month indicated that people infected with Omicron are significantly less likely to require hospitalization compared with those who contracted other COVID strains like delta. Many factors appear to have made the Omicron variant less virulent, or severe, than previous waves of COVID-19. One factor is the virus’ ability to infect the lungs. COVID infections typically start in the nose and spread down the throat. A mild infection doesn’t make it much farther than the upper respiratory tract, but if the virus reaches the lungs, that’s usually when more severe symptoms occur. But five separate studies in the past week suggested that the variant does not infect the lungs as easily as previous variants.
Response of the Centre and the States:
As of December 29, the reproduction number for COVID-19 exceeded 1.2 in the states of Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. Besides, the filtered growth rate of daily cases has exceeded 2.5 percent in two other states—Telangana and Uttarakhand.
Delhi, which has been witnessing a steady rise in COVID-19 cases, reported 4,099 new cases in the 23 hours before Jan 4, taking the positivity rate to 6.46 percent from 4.59 percent a day ago. One more person died of the infection. Mumbai, on the other hand, recorded 7,928 fresh COVID-19 cases pushing the test positivity rate to 16.39 percent. The city also recorded two related deaths in the past 24 hours, a municipal health bulletin said.
With the rapid rise in cases, some state governments have confronted the possibility of a third wave, reopening COVID-19 “war rooms” and considering tighter restrictions to curb the spread. The police in Mumbai have banned gatherings of four or more people until January 7 after new infections there nearly tripled in recent days.
In New Delhi, metro trains and buses were ordered to begin operating at 50 percent occupancy, a decision that was reversed on January 4. Schools, gyms, and spas have been closed, shops have been told to open on alternating days, and crowds at weddings have been capped at 20 people. Offices have been asked to operate at 50 percent capacity. New Delhi also banned large gatherings for Christmas and New Year, and many other states have announced new restrictions, including night curfews and vaccination requirements at stores and restaurants.
New Delhi announced last week that samples of all COVID-19 positive cases will be sent for genome sequencing at two government labs, going beyond screening for the variant at airports. But not all cities or states have the bandwidth to sequence all positive cases. Currently, 38 government labs across India can carry out genome sequencing. But it is still not close to analyzing five percent of all samples, the ideal standard.
To tackle the continued surge in COVID-19 cases, the Centre has advised all states and Union territories to initiate the process of setting up makeshift hospitals and to constitute special teams to monitor patients in home isolation. In a letter to all chief secretaries, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said it is imperative to re-emphasize the significance of timely and swift up-gradation of health infrastructure in all states and UTs. “This becomes all the more important since with the sudden increase in cases, we may start seeing a stressed health infrastructure,” he said.
Amid a steady rise in cases, cities across the country kick-started the COVID vaccination for teenagers, aged between 15 to 18 years, on January 3. The Union Health Ministry had announced that Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin will be administered to eligible children, in two doses 28 days apart. Over 41 lakh children in the age group of 15 to 18 years received COVID vaccine doses till 8 pm on the first day of the inoculation drive for this group of beneficiaries. The cumulative COVID vaccine doses administered in the country crossed 146.61 crores with more than 98 lakh shots being administered as of Monday.
With this, at least 61 percent of Indians have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, and 43 percent have received two doses. In addition to vaccination for children, the Government has also decided to begin administering booster doses to frontline healthcare workers starting January 10
- 146.70 crore vaccine doses have been administered so far under Nationwide Vaccination Drive
- India’s Active caseload currently stands at 1,71,830
- Active cases account for less than 1 percent of total cases, currently at 0.49 percent
- Recovery Rate is currently at 98.13 percent
- 11,007 recoveries in the last 24 hours increase Total Recoveries to 3,43,06,414
- 37,379 new cases in the last 24 hours
- Daily positivity rate (3.24 percent)
- Weekly Positivity Rate (2.05 percent)
- 68.24 crore Total Tests conducted so far