Noted virologist and microbiologist Dr Gagandeep Kang on Monday emphasised the need to involve the private sector in genome sequencing, as time is key in identifying cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
"What is critical is speed and then the sharing of data across all platforms; whether the data generated in the private sector or in the public sector is completely irrelevant. What's important is that the data is shared within the country and outside," Kang said.
As things stand, there is no clear turnaround time from the time a sample is dispatched to getting the results. The official stance is that the results of genome sequencing of a sample take 7-10 days, but sources said it could take as long as a month.
Dr Kang said time is of the essence as very little is currently known about the Omicron variant. She did temper this by saying knee-jerk reactions must be avoided every time a new mutation surfaces. She said a clear policy needs to be in place to handle such situations in the future.
Citing two recent studies, she said the immune response to the vaccine is lower among immunocompromised people in India and pushed for a booster or additional shot of the COVID-19 vaccine to this demographic.
"Whether we call it a booster or a third dose is irrelevant, they
Dr Kang said the second priority should be to vaccinate the elderly and those with comorbidities, as there is no evidence to suggest that immunity is low among fully vaccinated healthcare workers,
"It has not yet been shown that immunity among healthcare workers or protection among immunised healthcare workers has declined at quite the rate that we have seen among the elderly and those with comorbidities. So my second priority
Dr Kang said more data is needed before formulating a booster strategy for the country. "We need to have data on who is getting infected and how severe their disease is, whether they require hospitalisation or died. At the moment, we do not have a picture that allows us to interpret what is happening in the country," she said.
Referring to the worries about the effect of COVID-19 on children, she pointed out that as per official data from South Africa, children who tested positive for the coronavirus were hospitalised for other reasons.
She did, however, say that there is a need to worry about COVID-19 in immunocompromised children.
She said detection of infections was bound to be low with a very transmissible variant — as is Omicron — and less vaccinated population. She said we cannot halt the transmission completely but can delay the spread sufficiently to better equip the country’s healthcare system.
"So there is no way that you're going to stop transmission completely, what you can do is try and delay the spread of this variant. So that you can either understand more about how serious this is or put in place measures that you think will make the healthcare system more prepared for being able to handle a much higher number of cases, should that happen," she said.