India delays plan to resume international flights amid Omicron warnings

No cases of new variant have yet been confirmed in the country

Arriving passengers leave a terminal at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai on December 1, 2021. AFP
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India has delayed a plan to resume international flights amid warnings by experts that it is a “matter of time” before the new Covid-19 variant Omicron is detected in the country, given the high transmissibility of the virus.

The country’s aviation regulatory body, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, on Wednesday halted the resumption of international commercial flights until December 15 over concerns about the emergence of the mutated virus in more than a dozen countries.

The international commercial flight operations had been banned for more than 20 months and passenger flights were operating under a bubble arrangement between India and other countries since the pandemic outbreak.

“In view of the emerging global scenario … the situation is being watched closely … an appropriate decision indicating the effective date of resumption of scheduled commercial international passenger services shall be notified in due course,” the DGCA said.

The highly infectious virus B. 1.1.529, or Omicron, was first identified by scientists in South Africa on November 24 and within a week it has spread to dozens of countries including Australia, Italy, the Netherlands and Botswana.

While no cases of Omicron have been confirmed in India yet, samples of more than 20 people who tested positive after they returned from South Africa, Zambia and the Netherlands have been sent for genomic sequencing. The results will be known in a week.

Experts in India say while the virulence of the virus is not known yet, it can be believed that it is highly infectious because it is spreading so fast.

“The virus will slip through … it is a matter of time before we detect the variant because it is not that we can completely seal ourselves from it,” K Srinath Reddy, president of the non-profit health charity Public Health Foundation of India, told The National.

Since the Omicron alarm was raised by the WHO, India is treading carefully because it has just emerged from the devastating wave in April-May blamed on the Delta variant that pushed its healthcare infrastructure to the brink of collapse and killed nearly 250,000 people and infected more than 20 million.

Experts say Omicron has more than 30 spike mutations, more than double the Delta variant, which makes it more infectious.

“It does appear to be much more infectious because of the multiple spiked protein mutations that have occurred and there is preliminarily evidence that it is indeed spreading fast. Preliminary indications show it is more infectious than Delta,” Mr Reddy said.

The government has scaled up surveillance of hot spots and imposed stringent rules for international travellers, with Covid testing on arrival that can take up to 4-6 hours and mandatory quarantine and genome sequencing if tested positive.

The health ministry last week tightened its policy on international arrivals, making it mandatory for travellers from “at-risk” countries to undergo testing at the airport followed by a seven-day quarantine.

Nearly a dozen countries and the entire European region has been marked as “at-risk” by Indian authorities and cities such as Mumbai and Patna are planning mandatory testing for domestic passengers.

It has also directed the states to increase testing for early detection of the cases and vaccinations to ensure immunity against the virus.

What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

The country of 1.3 billion people has fully vaccinated 40 per cent of its adult population, while more than 80 per cent have received the first dose of a vaccine against Covid-19 since it launched an ambitious inoculation programme in January.

Infection rates dropped to an average of 10,000 a day in recent weeks in what experts believe is a hybrid protection from natural herd immunity and the effect of widespread immunisation among its population.

Rijo John, a health economist in Kerala, told The National that the emergence of the new variant was worrying for India and that the government needs to put its response on a “war footing” because a large section of its vulnerable population was not fully vaccinated.

“We should be more prepared with our vaccinations. [Of] the most vulnerable group — people above 45 years of age — only 58 per cent have been fully vaccinated with two doses. This means 42 per cent in this age group, which amounts to 145 million people, have not been vaccinated.,” Mr John said.

The health experts are also emphasising the need to prepare the healthcare infrastructure and to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour, which is critical for breaking the chain of transmission.

“Indians have lowered their guard … we have to continue following the protocol, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing,” Mr Reddy said.

“What we need is to prepare all our defences in the worst-case scenario. If it turns out to be mild but large numbers are infected, we have to look at testing and home care, but if it is as virulent as Delta, we have to step up our hospital preparedness,” Mr Reddy said.

Updated: December 01, 2021, 2:14 PM