Amid growing concerns over the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, a parliamentary committee has recommended that the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines must be evaluated and the government conduct more research to examine the need for booster doses to contain the new strain. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health, which presented its report on Friday, December 3, also said that concerns with regard to the new strain developing immunoescape mechanism should be critically addressed.
In view of loss of life during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee noted that the measures taken by the health ministry to contain or prevent the spread of SARS-COV-2 proved to be squarely inadequate and suggested that the focus should be on strengthening health infrastructure, ensuring adequate availability of beds, supply of oxygen cylinders and essential medicines.
With the threat of a third wave looming around, the government should utilise the time in strengthening public health infrastructure, it said. This is evident from the fact that unlike the first wave (which peaked in September 2020) of the COVID-19 pandemic, which largely was restricted to urban areas where testing was introduced rapidly, the second wave (peaked in May) largely spread through rural towns and villages, it said in its report.
The committee, thus, observed that there is a dire need for improving the geographical spread of testing facilities in rural regions of the country. It also recommended establishing sync between PHCs/CHCs with the VRDLs (Viral Research and Diagnostic Laboratories) in the states.
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In its report, the committee said it apprehends that a rise in mutations in the virus may lead to reporting of more virulent and transmissible strain of the coronavirus in the country and strongly recommended the Union Health Ministry to adopt a zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy and closely track COVID-19 cases across the country. "The committee believes that timely detection and isolation of potentially infectious people is very crucial in reducing the impact of the pandemic. The importance of diagnostic testing therefore, cannot be overlooked," the panel said in its report.
Besides, the government must aggressively keep pushing the vaccination programme in terms of granting approval to more vaccines, ramping up vaccine production, enhancing delivery capacity and increasing the vaccination rate, the committee said in its recommendations. "With the incidence of highly mutated Omicron (B.1.1.529) strain of Covid virus, the committee strongly believes that the efficacy of the vaccines must be evaluated. The concerns with regards to the new strain developing immunoescape mechanism need to be critically addressed," it recommended.
An efficient and widely deployed testing mechanism will go a long way in preventing the spread of the infection, the panel noted. The committee said although the second wave came almost six months after the peak of the first wave, India's testing infrastructure remained "abysmal and highly insufficient".
The report stated that to combat the current pandemic and other future emergencies, India must realise its full testing capacity and augment this capacity even further and that the government should ensure that the testing should far outpace the growth of the cases to arrest future waves of COVID-19 early.
"The committee also noted that with the new strain of Covid, Omicron (B.1.1.529), exhibiting 30 plus mutations, tracking and testing facilities especially at airports must also be strengthened and rigorous testing and screening of travellers must be carried out," it said.
"The committee is also concerned about the efficacy of the present vaccines and the possibility of mutated strain like Omicron evading vaccine immunity. The committee, therefore recommends the government to conduct more research and examine the need of administering booster dose of vaccines for containing the newer strain of virus," the committee said in its recommendations.
The committee recommended Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia INSACOG to closely monitor the new strain of the virus and work towards upgrading the genome sequencing infrastructure in the country.
With WHO designating Omicron as a "Variant of Concern", the government must take immediate measures to prevent the transmission of any newer strains in the country, the committee said in its recommendations.
Further noting that the North-East region was engulfed during the second wave of the pandemic, the committee said it is high time the ministry pulls up its socks and take concrete steps to improve the largely insufficient healthcare facilities in the North-East Region of the country.
The committee also sought to be apprised of the 'plan of action' with respect to utilisation of Rs 64,179.55 crore allocated for strengthening public health infrastructure for pandemic preparedness.
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