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Omicron Risk 'Very High', WHO Warns Of 'Severe Consequences'

NEW DELHI, Nov 29: The new Omicron variant of Covid poses a "very high" global risk and could have "severe consequences" where there are surges, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday, adding that it is not yet known how contagious and dangerous it is.

The Omicron variant is likely to spread internationally, the WHO said, urging countries to prepare by accelerating vaccinations and put mitigation plans in place to maintain essential health services.

"Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic," WHO said in a statement.

"If another major surge of Covid-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe," said a technical note, adding though that "to date, no deaths linked to Omicron variant have been reported."

"The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high," said the organisation. More research is needed to understand Omicron's potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, said WHO.

WHO on Friday declared Omicron a "Variant of Concern", placing the new strain into the most troubling category of Covid variants, along with Delta, and its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

Crucial data on Omicron is expected in coming weeks. WHO believes it can affect vaccinated people too. "COVID -19 cases and infections are expected in vaccinated persons, albeit in a small and predictable proportion," it said.

Omicron, first found in South Africa, has been identified in at least 12 other countries. Cases have emerged in Botswana, Italy, Hong Kong, Australia, Belgium, United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, Canada, Israel and Czech Republic.

Several countries have already imposed travel bans and restrictions on flights to and from South Africa and neighbouring countries.

Japan and Israel have barred foreigners. Australia says it will review plans to re-open borders to skilled migrants and students from December.

India will make on-arrival testing mandatory for those arriving from countries where 'Omicron' has been found. Every international passenger coming to India has to fill a self-declaration form and show a negative RT-PCR test report. They can't enter India if any of these two conditions are not fulfilled.

India offers vaccines, medical supplies to support African countries hit by Omicron variant

NEW DELHI, Nov 29: India on Monday offered to supply Covid-19 vaccines, life-saving drugs, test kits and medical equipment to African countries to fight the new Omicron variant of the Coronavirus.

Omicron has been designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO), based on evidence that it has several mutations that may impact how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.

“The government of India stands ready to support the countries affected in Africa in dealing with the Omicron variant, including by supplies of made-in-India vaccines,” the external affairs ministry said in a statement, adding that supplies can be delivered through the WHO-backed COVAX facility or bilaterally.

“India also stands ready to supply essential life-saving drugs, test kits, gloves, PPE kits and medical equipment such as ventilators, as may be required,” the statement said.

Indian institutions will “favourably consider cooperation in genomic surveillance and virus characterisation related research work” with African counterparts.

The statement noted that the Indian government has cleared all orders placed so far by COVAX for supplies of the Covishield vaccine, including to African countries such as Malawi, Ethiopia, Zambia, Mozambique, Guinea and Lesotho.

The government also cleared supplies of Covaxin to Botswana, and any new requirement projected bilaterally or through COVAX will be considered expeditiously, according to the statement.

India expressed solidarity with countries, particularly in Africa, that have so far been affected by the Omicron variant.

India has so far supplied more than 25 million doses of made-in-India vaccines to 41 countries in Africa, including nearly one million doses as grants to 16 countries and more than 16 million doses under the COVAX facility to 33 countries.

The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa. WHO has said it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants such as Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, and epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.

Europe's First Case Of New Covid Variant Detected In Belgium

BRUSSELS, Nov 26: Belgium said Friday it has detected the first announced case in Europe of the new Covid-19 variant, in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad.

"We have a case that is now confirmed of this variant," B.1.1.529, first detected in southern Africa, Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a media conference.

The infected person tested positive on November 22 and had not had Covid-19 before, he added, without giving further details.

A leading Belgian virologist, Marc Van Ranst, tweeted that the person had returned from Egypt on November 11.

Vandebroucke said: "It must be repeated that this is a suspect variant -- we don't know if it is a very dangerous variant."

He noted, however, that "as a precaution" Europe was stopping flights from southern Africa.

"So, total precaution but don't panic," he said, adding that Belgium's Covid-19 risk assessment group was analysing the situation.

Third wave of pandemic won’t be as severe as previous ones: AIIMS director

NEW DELHI, Nov 23: The third wave of the coronavirus pandemic may not have the same severity as the first two as fewer Covid-19 cases in India indicate that the vaccines have been effective in providing protection against the viral disease, All India Institute of Medical Sciences director Randeep Guleria said on Tuesday.

“It is unlikely that the third wave of Covid-19 of a magnitude comparable to the first and second will hit India. With time, the pandemic will take an endemic form. We'll continue to get cases but the severity will be highly reduced,” said Guleria.

India has been witnessing a fall in its daily tally of Covid-19 cases for a week now. On Tuesday, the country logged 7,579 infections—the lowest in 543 days and also the second consecutive day that new cases remained below the 10,000-mark.

Guleria also said that there is no need for booster doses right now since there is no surge in Covid-19 cases but the government should focus on inoculating those who still have not taken a single dose and also on those whose second jab is overdue.

The AIIMS director, however, asked people to exercise caution. “We have to be watchful and careful of all the viruses in the world in this world of quick mobility,” he said.

Guleria was speaking at the book launch of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director general Balram Bhargava’s ‘Going Viral: Making of Covaxin - The Inside Story’.

ICMR’s Bhargava also said that there is currently no scientific evidence to support the need for a booster vaccine dose against Covid-19.

On Monday, Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya held a meeting with officials to discuss low vaccination rates in Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Puducherry. These states and Union Territories are yet to inoculate at least 70 per cent of their population with the first dose.

The government has also launched the month-long ‘Har Ghar Dastak’ campaign for inoculating those who are yet to get their first dose and also vaccinating those who are overdue on their second dose.

India is aiming to vaccinate its entire population by the end of this year but low vaccination rates in certain states coupled with people delaying their second dose could be a cause of concern, according to some medical experts.

Indian firm gets US FDA’s ‘breakthrough designation’ for breast cancer detection blood test

NEW DELHI, Nov 21: A Nashik-based cancer research company has announced that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted ‘Breakthrough Designation’ for its blood test to detect early-stage breast cancer.

The blood test uses proprietary technology developed by Datar Cancer Genetics to detect circulating tumour cells and clusters specific to breast cancer with very high accuracy. Data from clinical trials has shown that the test can detect stage 0 (DCIS) and stage I breast cancers with accuracy of over 99 per cent without any false positives.

The test has been validated on more than 20,000 women comprising healthy and cancer patients. It requires only 5 ml blood and does not involve exposure to any radiation or discomfort associated with mammography.

In India, more than 1.7 lakh women are detected with breast cancer, mostly at stage III or IV, which makes the treatment toxic and expensive besides having minimal chances of success. If detected early, breast cancer can be cured in almost 99 per cent of the cases.

“This is for the first time that women above the age of 40 can obtain a breast cancer specific blood test in consultation with their physician from the convenience and privacy of their home or office. We are pleased with the recognition by the US FDA for our test. It underscores the potential of the test which we believe will revolutionise the early detection and cure of this dreaded disease worldwide,” said Rajan Datar, chairman of the research firm.

“Moreover, it is a matter of great pride that our scientists and clinicians from India have put the country at the centre stage of global cancer research and this is an example of the Prime Minister’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ mission,” he added.

The test is already available in Europe and will be available in India shortly as ‘EasyCheck’ and it will be reasonably priced. The company is in discussions with several leading healthcare providers for ready accessibility.

The firm has also validated a blood test to detect multiple cancers, including several extremely lethal malignancies, such as in the lung, pancreas and ovaries. It will be available next year.

For 1st time, number of fully jabbed surpasses partially vaccinated

NEW DELHI, Nov 17: For the first time since the start of India’s vaccination programme, the number of people in the country who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 has surpassed those who are partially vaccinated, data shows.

The development comes on the back of several weeks of the administration of second doses outstripping that of first doses, a trend that became very clear through October and November as the vaccine coverage reached 80% of the eligible population (at least one dose), a level at which experts expect it to hit a ceiling.

As of Tuesday night, of the 755.4 million people who have received at least one shot of the Covid-19 vaccine in India, 380.7 million people are fully vaccinated (have received both shots) and another 374.7 million have received only one shot, according to data from the CoWIN dashboard. When seen alongside India’s estimated population of 940 million adults, this means that 40.3% of the country’s adults have been fully vaccinated while another 40.2% have been given a single jab so far.

The mathematical significance of this number is that, in combination with non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masking and social distancing, 40% was the level of exposure (or vaccination) at which herd immunity was expected to set in according to a model created by researchers at the University of Nottingham and the University of Stockholm.

On Tuesday, India recorded 10,351 new cases of Covid, pushing the case rate to the lowest in 274 days. Thus far, the country has reported nearly 34.5 million Covid-19 cases and 464,213 deaths from the viral disease.

According to data maintained by the website Our World in Data, on average, 54.1% of India’s population (the entire population, not just those above 18 years) have received at least one shot of the vaccine, while 26.8% are fully vaccinated. The global average for these figures is 52.2% and 40.9%, respectively. This means that while India leads the global average in total coverage, it is considerably behind in the proportion of people fully vaccinated.

The gap can be partly attributed to the revision of the prescribed gap between the two doses in the case of Serum Institute of India’s Covishield (a vaccine that accounts for nearly 90% of all doses administered in the country). On May 13, the Union health ministry announced the widening of the gap between the doses of Covishield from 4-8 weeks to 12-16 weeks.

And due to the large proportion of those vaccinated having received Covishield, this change in policy has had a cascading effect on the number of people getting second doses. It has ended up having a plateauing effect on the total number of people completely vaccinated in the country after mid-May, even as more people received first doses.

The country, however, has been closing this gap since the start of October, when administration of second doses started outstripping that of first doses. The number of people who have been administered just one dose of the vaccine have been steadily dropping since the first week of October, data shows.

Officials fear that a drop in first doses with nearly 20% of the country yet to be given even a single dose can dent the larger goal of fully vaccinating all of India’s adults by the end of the year -- holding on to their aim of universal vaccination, something no country has managed to achieve.

On Tuesday, Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya stressed that the completion of the Covid-19 vaccination drive with 100% administration of both the doses to India’s adults is an “immediate necessity.”

“We have to all ensure that everybody is vaccinated,” he said. Mandaviya was interacting with stakeholders helping the government in furthering the reach and coverage of vaccination under the government’s ‘Har Ghar Dastak’ drive under which officials are conducting door-to-door vaccinations of people eligible for second dose as well as those who are yet to be administered their first jab.

As part of this push earlier this month, the Union government directed all states to plan to achieve at least 90% first dose coverage by the end of the November, stressing on the need to accelerate the immunisation drive in several regions with relatively lower coverage rates.

Experts said that a brief drop in vaccination rate for first dose administration was expected due to the festive season and may not immediately be a cause for concern.

“People who are yet to receive even a single dose of the vaccine generally tend to be a little more wary of any side effects they may get from their first shot. I have a feeling that since there have been so many festivals in the country from October onwards, many people would have delayed getting their first jabs because they did not want to experience side-effects like fever that may hamper their celebrations... Hopefully should see the first dose administration pick up again soon,” said Dr Lalit Kant, former head of epidemiology at the Indian Council of Medical Research.

But at 80.5% coverage, India may have well hit saturation coverage of all those willing to take the vaccine.

Game Changing Made-In-India Anti-Covid Pills Could Be Cleared For Use In Days

NEW DELHI, Nov 10: Emergency Use Authorisation for the Merck drug Molnupiravir -- an oral antiviral medicine for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 -- is likely "within days", according to Dr Ram Vishwakarma, Chairman of the Covid Strategy Group, CSIR

The medicine is meant for adults who are at risk for progressing to severe COVID-19 or hospitalization. Another pill from Pfizer, Paxlovid, may take some more time, he added.

The two drugs, he said, will make a difference and "as we move from pandemic to endemic, these are the ones which are going to be more important than vaccination".

Calling the drugs the "final nail in the coffin of the virus by science", he said, "I think Molnupiravir will be already available to us. Five companies are sitting with the drug manufacturer... I think any day we will have approval of Molnupiravir".

Data for Molnupiravir has been "sitting with the regulator" here before the UK regulator's approval, he said. "So already SECs are looking at it. And I think they will they will get faster approval now. And therefore, it would it be safe to say that within the next one month, there would be a decision on approval for the Merck drug".

Pfizer has said according to clinical trial, its Paxlovid cuts the risk of hospitalisation or death by 89 per cent in vulnerable adults.

Merck has already contracted five companies "and the way Merck has given this license to several companies, Pfizer will also do because Pfizer will have to utilise the Indian capacity to manufacture the drugs that are required for the global use".

The cost, he said, will be far lower than the 700 dollars that's being considered in the US for the Merck vaccine "because in America it is costly for various other reasons and not for the manufacturing cost".

"I think here when the government of India comes into play, they will buy in bulk from these companies and of course, they will have a dual pricing system and a staggered pricing system," he said.

He said it might initially cost "2000 to 3000 or 4000 rupees per cycle of treatment, then it will come down to 500 to 600 or 1,000 rupees".

Covaxin Gets WHO Approval

GENEVA, Nov 3: The World Health Organization on Wednesday granted Covaxin an emergency use listing, or EUL, which means the 'made-in-India' vaccine will finally be recognised by other countries and Indians who received the shot need not self-quarantine or face restrictions when travelling abroad.

Covaxin has been cleared for use in all age groups (18+) over two doses spaced four weeks apart. However, no recommendation has been made for use on children, and available data for use on pregnant women is insufficient to assess safety or efficacy, WHO said.

"The Technical Advisory Group (an independent panel that provides the WHO with vaccine recommendations) has determined Covaxin meets standards for protection against COVID-19... the benefit of the vaccine far outweighs risks (and) the vaccine can be used," the global health body said.

"Covaxin was also reviewed by WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), and recommended use of this vaccine (is) in two doses, with an interval of four weeks, in all age groups 18+," the WHO tweeted.

"Available data on vaccination of pregnant women with Covaxin are insufficient to assess vaccine safety or efficacy in pregnancy; studies in pregnant women are planned, including a pregnancy sub-study and a pregnancy registry," it said.

The WHO confirmed Covaxin had been found to be "78 per cent effective against COVID-19 of any severity, 14 or more days after the second dose, and is extremely suitable for low- and middle-income countries due to easy storage requirements".

Bharat Biotech said grant of the EUL was "a very significant step towards ensuring global access to India's widely administered, safe and efficacious (vaccine)".

"As an organisation we have focused on maintaining stringent quality and safety standards that meet rigorous assessment and scientific standards established by WHO... EUL authorisation for Covaxin will enable us to contribute to accelerating the equitable access of COVID-19 vaccines..." Dr Krishna Ella, Bharat Biotech Chairman and Managing Director, said.

The EUL comes after a lengthy and rigorous review period - Bharat Biotech provided the first batch of data in July - that involves assurances about the vaccine's safety, efficacy and stability, as well as checks of production facilities.

The delay left millions in limbo; in particular it was a huge problem for Indian students studying abroad in countries like Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia.

The WHO had said it "understands many people are waiting for Covaxin to be included in the COVID-19 Emergency Use Listing" but had also stressed "we cannot cut corners before recommending a product for emergency use... we must evaluate thoroughly to make it is safe and effective".

The WHO also underlined its trust of the Indian vaccine industry, and in its defense, referred to the 30 days it took for an EUL for Serum Institute's Covishield (the AstraZeneca-Oxford University shot).

"... this is not about moving quicker with one or another vaccine. We really trust the Indian industry."

The approval is also likely to clear the way for India to commit vaccine supplies to COVAX - the global vaccine-sharing effort co-led by the WHO which aims to provide vaccines to poorer countries.

Last month a news agency reported the government was delaying a deal on that point while the World Health Organization deliberated on approval for Coaxin.

Covaxin is one of a few 'made-in-India' vaccines and, with Covishield, is the mainstay of the country's drive against the coronavirus; as of this evening over 12.14 crore people have been given the jab.

Apart from Covishield and Covaxin, the WHO has so far approved vaccines produced by American pharma giants Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, and China's Sinopharm.

5 Million Deaths Have Been Recorded Globally Due To COVID-19

PARIS, Nov 1: Five million people have died worldwide from COVID-19 since the disease first emerged in China nearly two years ago, according to a tally from official sources.

Monday's milestone, nearly four months after four million deaths were registered, came even as mortality rates slow thanks to a global vaccine rollout that has seen billions of people injected.

While the number of daily deaths worldwide fell below 8,000 for the first time in almost a year in early October, there remain blackspots globally.

"The total number of cases and deaths of COVID-19 is increasing for the first time in two months, due to the current increase in the epidemic in Europe," World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference on Thursday.

In the 52 countries and territories that form the WHO's European region, the mounting death count is mainly coming from the east.

Russia -- a country with strong vaccine hesitancy -- has seen infections and deaths reach new records, with average daily fatalities in excess of 1,000 since October 20.

And according to the authorities themselves, this death count is largely underestimated.

The government's daily deaths shows a total of 239,693 deaths as of 1 November.

However, national statistics agency Rosstat, which has a broader definition of Covid deaths, said at the end of September that the death count was nearly 450,000.

After Russia, Ukraine and Romania are the two countries in Europe with the highest daily death count -- averaging 546 and 442 deaths per day, respectively, over the past seven days.

Latin America and the Caribbean is the world's deadliest region (1,521,193 deaths since the start of the pandemic).

But the number of daily deaths, currently around 840, has been declining since May.

In the United States, more than 1,400 deaths were recorded each day on average over the past seven days, 15 percent down on the previous week. With its total of 746,747 deaths, the country is bearing the brunt of the pandemic.

The WHO estimates that the pandemic's real death count could be two to three times higher than official records, due to the excess mortality that is directly and indirectly linked to COVID-19.

The Economist magazine looked at excess mortality and concluded around 17 million have died from Covid.

"This figure seems more credible to me," Pasteur Institute epidemiologist Professor Arnaud Fontanet told AFP.

Whatever the case, the death count is lower than from other historical pandemics, such as Spanish flu that killed 50-100 million in 1918-1919.

Nonetheless, Covid has "caused a lot of deaths in a short period", said Jean-Claude Manuguerra, a virologist at the French institute.

"It could have been a lot more dramatic without all the measures taken, particularly restrictions on movement of people and then the vaccinations," according to Fontanet.

India's Covid vaccination certificate gets 5 more recognitions

NEW DELHI, Nov 1: India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on Monday that five more countries have recognised the Covid-19 vaccination certificate given by India.

"Mutual recognition of Covid-19 vaccination certificates continues! Five more recognitions for India's vaccination certificate, including from Estonia, Kyrgyzstan, State of Palestine, Mauritius and Mongolia," the MEA said on Twitter.

Last month, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had informed that Hungary and Serbia agreed to India for mutual recognition of Covid-19 vaccination certificates.

This comes days after foreign secretary Harsh V Shringla said that a discussion was held on mutual recognition of vaccination certificate during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Italy.

"Issue of vaccination certificate was discussed especially with EU representatives. There was a conversation on mutual recognition of vaccines...a doable mechanism to facilitate easier international travel... Details will be worked out bilaterally," Shringla had said on Friday.

"Fact of the matter is that the point PM tried to make (on vaccine certification) has been received. Most countries are quite happy with the idea of facilitating smoother international travel...and feel that we need to collectively work on it," he stated.

Last month, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had informed that Hungary and Serbia agreed to India for mutual recognition of Covid-19 vaccination certificates.

Some issue around recognising Covid vaccination certificate cropped up briefly between India and the United Kingdom. It started after the UK incorporated some changes in its travel rules from October 4 and did not initially mention made in India Covishield in the list of its accepted vaccines against Covid-19. Then the UK government accepted the Covishield vaccine as it is a formulation of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine, already recognised by the UK regulatory authority, but did not accept India's vaccine certificates, generated by Cowin.

Several rounds of talks were held between India and the UK government to resolve the issue. India took a reciprocal action and imposed similar restrictions on people coming from the UK.

The issue was finally resolved with the UK lifting curbs on travellers from India on October 11.


Omicron Risk 'Very High', WHO Warns Of 'Severe Consequences'

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Covaxin gets emergency use nod for children aged 2-18 years



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