Seven more cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 were detected in Maharashtra on Friday, according to the National Institute of Virology. With this, India’s tally of Omicron cases rose to 32.

One of the patients in Maharashtra is a three-and-a-half-year-old child.

Three of the cases were reported from Mumbai. The patients have a history of travel to Tanzania, the United Kingdom and South Africa – three countries on India’s “at-risk” list.

Four other infections were reported from Pimpri Chinchwad in Maharashtra. They are the contacts of a Nigerian woman who had tested positive for the Omicron variant.

Besides Maharashtra, which now has a total of 17 cases of the variant, Rajasthan has reported nine patients infected with the strain. Gujarat has reported three such cases, two were detected in Karnataka, and one in Delhi.

NITI Aayog member for Health and chief of India’s Covid-19 task force Dr VK Paul addressing a media briefing on Friday on the Covid-19 situation in India. Credit: Screenshot/PIB via YouTube.

Meanwhile, the Centre said on Friday said it had been monitoring over 70 clusters of Covid-19 in India and has found that most cases belong to the Delta variant or sub-lineages of the coronavirus.

At a media briefing on India’s Covid-19 situation, NITI Aayog member for Health and chief of India’s Covid-19 task force Dr VK Paul said that there has been a decline in the use of masks to protect against the virus.

“From the point of view of protection capability, we are now operating at a risky and unacceptable level,” Paul said. “The science community is still issuing warnings.... WHO [World Health Organization] is also warning that this is not the time to not wear masks. We have to remember that both vaccines and masks are important.”

Union Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal also said that the World Health Organization had noted that public health measures should be followed continuously, apart from vaccinations. “Adequate precautions have to be followed,” he said. “Laxity in public health measures is leading to a surge in cases in Europe.”

Agarwal said that the government has been conducting surveillance, screening and monitoring international travellers and an upgrade of health care infrastructure was also being done.

“States have been notified to increase their surveillance and actively test passengers arriving from other countries,” the Union health ministry official added. He said that mainly mild symptoms had been reported among the patients infected with the Omicron variant.

Paul added that no recommendation had been received from the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation in India on paediatric vaccination. “Our view is also aligned with WHO, let’s complete the task of vacccinating every adult with two doses before we think of boosters,” he added.

Booster shots are doses given to ramp up the number of antibodies provided by vaccines that wane over a period of time.

In a bulletin dated November 29, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium had said: “Vaccination of all remaining unvaccinated at-risk people and consideration of a booster dose for those 40 years of age and over, first targeting the most high-risk/high-exposure may be considered, since low levels of neutralising anti-bodies from current vaccines are unlikely to be sufficient to neutralise Omicron.”

However, on December 4, the genome sequencing body said that more scientific experiments would be needed to assess the impact of booster doses of Covid-19 vaccines.

The consortium also said that its earlier statement was “not a recommendation or suggestion for booster dose in the national immunisation program”.

Trying to study efficacy of Covishield, Covaxin against Omicron: ICMR

At the briefing on Friday, Indian Council of Medical Research chief Dr Balram Bhargava said that meetings were being held regularly to keep an eye on the global Covid-19 situation with a focus on the Omicron variant.

“We need help to not spread panic,” he added. “District level restrictions to be implemented where positivity is over 5%.” Covid-19 positivity rate is the percentage of population that has tested positive for the coronavirus out of the total number who had been tested.

Bhargava added that studies were being done to establish the efficacy of Covishield and Covaxin against the Omicron variant.

“We are trying to grow the virus, we have inoculated the virus into the culture medium so that it grows....” Bhargava said. “Once we grow the virus, we will be able to test in the laboratory the efficacy of both these vaccines [Covishield and Covaxin] by taking blood from the vaccinated individuals and seeing how effective that is in the laboratory.”

The Indian Council of Medical Research chief added that clinically the Omicron variant has not become a burden on the healthcare system, but the monitoring has to continue.

Assess need for booster shots, says parliamentary panel

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs on Friday suggested that the health ministry, along with expert groups, assess the need for additional doses of the vaccine in order to combat different strains of Covid-19, PTI reported.

The committee, in a report tabled in the Lok Sabha, said that the since the Covid-19 pandemic is unpredictable, India cannot let its guard down.

The panel said that states should be asked not to scale down the infrastructure needed to combat Covid-19 because a third wave of the pandemic could hit the country and there may not be enough time to respond to it, PTI reported.