The Omicron variant of coronavirus has arrived in India while the country is in the throes of an intense wedding season.

With restrictions on gatherings being lifted recently after more than a year of Covid-19 precautions, as many as 25 lakh weddings are taking place between November and December, according to the Confederation of All India Traders.

The first Omicron cluster in the country has, in fact, been reported from a wedding in Jaipur.

Nine people, all guests at a wedding held in Jaipur on November 28, were confirmed to be Omicron-infected in Jaipur on December 5. Among them is a family of four that had travelled from South Africa to attend the wedding.

South Africa was the first country to detect the new variant. It was found in a sample collected in Gauteng province on November 8. In the three weeks since then, Gauteng has seen a rapid increase in Covid-19 cases, leading scientists to conclude that the new variant is highly transmissible.

In India, the health ministry was quick to sound an alarm – at a press briefing on December 2, the Indian Council of Medical Research director Dr Balram Bhargava said not attending mass gatherings will help break the chain of transmission of Omicron.

But state governments haven’t yet introduced any fresh restrictions on gatherings. Couples and families, who had put wedding plans on hold because of the pandemic, appear unwilling now to scale down the celebrations.

“Covid-19 cases are low and there are very few Omicron cases in India,” said Deepak Shah, whose close relative, Shivani Maheshwari, is getting married on December 10 at one of Indore city’s largest wedding venues, the Nakshatra Brilliant Convention centre. Over 300 guests are expected to attend the wedding.

Crowded venues, no masking

The Jaipur wedding had about 100 guests in attendance, mostly from Delhi, Sikar and Jaipur. After the family from South Africa tested positive for Omicron, 34 of their contacts and those who attended the wedding were tested, of which five were found positive. In Sikar, eight wedding guests were tested, all were negative. It wasn’t clear whether any of the guests from Delhi had been tested yet.

The stunning forts and palaces of Rajasthan make it a popular wedding destination – this week, Bollywood actors Katrina Kaif and Vickey Kaushal are getting married in a gala ceremony in one of the palaces in the state.

Since destination weddings are an important source of revenue for the state, the government is loath to place restrictions on the gatherings.

“The upper limit of guests allowed in a wedding is 200,” said Dr Sonya Agrawal, senior health officer in Jaipur’s municipal corporation for heritage areas. She admitted municipal staff are trying – and failing – to enforce Covid-19 safety measures at weddings.

“Every week we call a meeting of caterers, venue owners and event managers to sensitise them about physical distancing and masking,” she said. “But in our random checks we have noticed that people tend to forget these measures while enjoying a marriage function.”

Apart from the nine cases in Rajasthan, 14 cases of Omicron have been detected in India so far – ten in Maharashtra, two in Karnataka, one each in Delhi and Gujarat. Other than the wedding cluster in Rajasthan, and a family of six in Pimpri Chinchwad in Maharashtra, all infected cases so far are scattered – that is, the patients are not connected to each other.

Dr Laxman Gophane, the health official in Pimpri Chinchwad municipal corporation, said the Jaipur cluster had sparked conversation about the need to adopt stricter measures for weddings “to reduce the risk of a super-spreader event” in Pimpri Chinchwad. But a final decision will take time, Gophane said.

In Delhi, a spokesperson of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party said 100 people continue to be allowed to attend a wedding. “There are no further protocols planned for weddings apart from what is already in place,” he added.

The Civil hospital in Ahmedabad has set up a ward for Omicron patients. Photo: Sam Panthaky/ AFP

Why is Omicron worrying medical experts?

What made the World Health Organisation declare Omicron to be a “variant of concern” within two days of the first case being reported to them by South Africa was the number and location of mutations found in the variant.

Spike proteins on the surface of a virus help it gain entry into the host cell. Omicron has 26-32 mutations in spike proteins, twice as much as the Delta variant, which means it is twice as infectious and transmissible.

“A virus can spread faster if it can escape the host’s immune response,” said Dr Anurag Agrawal, director of the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in India, during a virtual conference of the World Health Organisation on December 6. “In Omicron, almost all sites where spike proteins bind with host cells are mutated.” This means that the mutations in the virus could help it evade immunity acquired from previous infections and vaccination.

Several cases of Omicron breakthrough infections – infections among people who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 – have been reported.

While there is some evidence to show disease severity is low in cases of Omicron, Agrawal said highly transmissible viruses with low lethality can cause more deaths than low transmissible viruses with high lethality. This is because a rapid rise in cases could overwhelm health systems, as experienced in parts of India during the deadly second wave of the pandemic in April and May this year.

The Omicron variant has been detected in more than 45 countries, but no deaths associated with it have been reported so far.

In the December 6 conference of the World Health Organisation, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the Covid-19 technical lead in the WHO, said countries need to drive transmission down.

“I am not talking about lockdown,” she said. “Countries need to postpone large gatherings, ensure people wear masks, and practice distancing...No matter how Omicron unfolds, if we can lower transmission it will benefit us.”

A mass wedding in Surat on December 4. Credit: PTI

Weddings as usual in India

In India, public health experts are divided on the risk posed by Omicron.

Epidemiologist Dr Chandrakant Lahariya said there was no cause for alarm yet. “India has high vaccination coverage and high sero-prevalence,” he said. Sero-prevalance is a measure of how many people in a country or region have antibodies that give immunity against the virus.

“People cannot be expected to put wedding plans on hold,” Lahariya said. “Perhaps they can be cautious and opt for more open space venues.”

Others, however, advocate greater caution. Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, Sonepat in Haryana, who has expertise in disease modelling, said India should be watchful for an abrupt rise in cases and test positivity.

“The Omicron variant may well upend all our calculations about what the pandemic will do next in India,” he said. “It is important to stick with what we know works against any new variant: masking, ventilation, avoiding crowding and getting vaccinated.”

So far, the discovery of Omicron in India hasn’t dampened the wedding season, say those who run wedding businesses.

“Last year people were afraid of the virus, they avoided grand marriage functions, but this year we aren’t seeing the same trend,” said Shankar Thakkar, a supplier in the catering business and chairman of the Confederation of All India Traders’s Mumbai Metropolitan Branch.

Priyanka Marla’s cousin Shradha Bansode is getting married on December 9 in Mumbai. “Since we have made all preparations and booked the venue, caterers and event planners, there is no change in our plans at the last moment,” she said.

Omicron, she added, is not a concern because only close friends and family are invited. “Except for our relatives in the USA and Dubai who can’t make it because of Omicron, all other guests in India are attending,” she said.

The wedding guest list is small, she emphasised – only about 150 people.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.