Omicron may not be as risky, but take care
The fact that Omicron was detected in an individual who had arrived in Nepal five days before the new variant was first identified in Botswana is proof it was already circulating and travel bans do not work.
The new strain has been detected in over 40 countries mere two weeks after it was first detected. What is known so far of Omicron is that it is highly transmissible but likely not very severe as there has been no significant increase in hospitalisations among infected individuals in places with outbreaks.
“Looking at preliminary findings I don’t think it will lead to another major surge or lockdowns like Delta, but having said that we must be prepared and contain it to prevent further mutation and more virulent strains,” says epidemiologist Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa of IPAS Nepal.
She adds: “We do that by vaccinating as many people as possible including boosters if they are nearing expiry date as we know them to be, following safety measures especially indoors and by better communicating government policies to control the spread of new strains.”
One of the main concerns with Omicron is mutations in the spike protein that binds it to the receptor. Most vaccines including Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and J&J primarily target this spike protein, so there are worries that the new variant will escape immunity afforded by jabs.
Mutations are natural, but coronaviruses make fewer of them than other viruses because of their much stronger proofreading system to survive.
Speaking with India Spend, Polly Roy, professor of virology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said: ‘Even though we have a mutation, it’s not in the receptor-binding site area so much. Thus, if they change too much, the virus will not bind to host cells and will not survive. And the vaccines target that area, so the vaccines will still work against Omicron infection.’
Says infectious disease specialist at HAMS Hospital Anup Subedee: “Even if the vaccines are less effective against this variant, it will still provide significant immunity to fight off new infections. And given that antibodies wane over time, Nepal’s frontline workers and the elderly should be prioritised for boosters, if possible with vaccines known to have higher efficacy.”
There are also concerns that despite registering only mild symptoms Omicron could affect vulnerable populations much later as it is the younger mobile population who are usually infected first without much impact on their health.
Most of the initial Omicron infections are said to be mild and among young and vaccinated people, which means Nepal could be ripe for another surge.
“Don’t be surprised if we do,” says Sushil Koirala, a Nepali public health expert based in Bangkok. “We have all the necessary fuel to start the wildfire: low vaccination coverage, poor adherence to public health measures, lackluster preparedness, and questionable surveillance,” Koirala warns.
But the moral dilemma over booster remains when over 60% of Nepal’s targeted population is yet to even receive the first dose.
“In an ideal world, universal coverage is the way to go but the government hasn’t been able to vaccinate the majority of Nepalis, so we cannot wait forever for boosters either,” adds Subedee.
With the rapid spread of Omicron in the region, the Nepal government has announced that it will vaccinate at least 200,000 people a day and the Health Minister Birodh Khatiwada has asked people who have inoculated with two doses of vaccine to also receive the third dose to prevent the risk of the third wave.
Khatiwada was quoted as saying that the government had a stock of 20 million doses of different jabs and it will start administering the booster from mid-December with 16,000 vaccination centres across the country.
So far Nepal has received 25,658,630 doses of the Covid vaccine of which some 660,000 doses still in stock. In the next three months, a total of 34,594,460 doses of different jabs are arriving in Nepal: 9,403,000 doses of AstraZeneca, 3,000,000 Coronavax, 2,386,800 VeroCell (one vial, one dose), 2,174,400 J&J and 1,965,600 Moderna.
But the government’s focal person for vaccine Shyam Raj Upreti told Nepali Times health authorities are authorised to administer only an additional dose, not a booster, and only for immunocompromised people and individuals above 60 who had received VeroCell, as recommended by the WHO.
“Our priority is still to vaccinate the targeted population and hence those who are still not vaccinated,” adds Uprety. “And for this, we are focusing on activities to convince more people to inoculate, add vaccination booths to increase access and where required administer the doses door to door.”
At present, 29% of Nepal’s population has been fully inoculated while 33.9% have been vaccinated partially. Experts say better communication about vaccination schedules a few days before the campaign in local language and on platforms most consumed is crucial in further increasing the uptake.
Equally important is building a storage facility for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are in the pipeline to vaccinate children 12 and above. A limited number of students who revived Pfizer jabs last month are yet to receive their second dose, recommended after three weeks of the first.
Speaking on his social platform, Sameer Dixit of the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal recommended patience over panic: “Let’s wait and watch until we have more concrete findings on Omicron. Until then mask up and vaccinate as soon as it is available. As for boosters, those in vulnerable groups should get it.”