On alert over the new Omicron strain of Covid-19, the Narendra Modi government has decided that samples from Covid-positive travellers who arrived in India in the last two weeks from 12 “at-risk” countries shall be sent for genome sequencing, News18.com has learnt.
Genomic sequencing is considered one of the most crucial tools to track and trace the presence of mutant strains in the country.
Nations currently on India’s ‘at-risk’ list are South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Israel, and European countries, including the UK.
The Omicron strain was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on Wednesday and has been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.
The WHO has labelled Omicron a “variant of concern”, and said it may spread more quickly than other forms, adding that preliminary evidence suggested an increased risk of reinfection. Health experts have expressed concerns over the transmissibility of the variant considering that it is heavily mutated and carries a profile that is different from other variants of concern.
“Currently, travellers need to carry an RT-PCR report. They are tested again only if they have symptoms or the reports are invalid or absent. However, now they have to undergo testing as soon as they arrive in India. The idea is to track people who are asymptomatic and isolate them at the earliest,” a top government official privy to the development told News18.com.
The official added that the government has also fast-tracked report generation of genomic sequencing from four weeks to one. The move will help the government increase surveillance and process a high number of samples from international travellers.
“We have prioritised genome sequencing to closely monitor the situation. Earlier, it took around four weeks to generate a report. However, considering the need of the hour, reports will be generated in a week’s time now,” the official said.
According to the government official, presently, the turnaround time from sample collection to sequencing data generation and variant identification is two weeks. The official explained that across India, eight labs are designated for testing. Considering the time taken from sample collection to submission of the genome with scientific information, the cycle may take not less than four weeks, especially given the volume of samples.
The government also plans to speed up an awareness drive for those who have not taken even the first dose of Covid-19 vaccine. “There are around 10-12 crore eligible beneficiaries who have not turned up to take even the first dose of the vaccine. The idea is to make them aware of how important it is to be vaccinated. We will also work on speeding the drive for second dose administration,” the official added.