Amid growing concerns over the new Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, a parliamentary committee has recommended that the efficacy of Covid vaccines must be evaluated and concerns with regards to the new strain developing immunoescape mechanism critically addressed.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health, which presented its report on Friday, also recommended that the government should conduct more research and examine the need of administering booster doses of vaccines to contain the new strain of the virus.
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 Covid virus in the country and strongly recommended the Union Health Ministry to adopt a zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy and closely track Covid 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 COVID-19. The importance of diagnostic testing therefore, cannot be overlooked," the panel said in its report.
In view of the loss of life during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee said that the measures taken by the 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 of health infrastructure, ensuring adequate availability of beds, adequate supply of oxygen cylinders and essential medicines etc.
With the threat of a third wave looming around, the government should utilise the time in strengthening public health infrastructure. This is evident from the fact that unlike the first wave (peaking in September 2020) of the COVID-19 pandemic, which largely was restricted to urban areas where testing was introduced rapidly, the second wave (peaking in May) largely spread through rural towns and villages, it said in its report.
The committee observed that there is a dire need for improving the geographical spread of testing facilities in the rural regions of the country. Additionally, 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 report.
"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 said.
An efficient and widely deployed testing mechanism will go a long way in preventing the spread of the infection, the report noted.
The committee said that 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 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 report said.
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 Omicorn 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.
The committee also sought to be apprised of the 'plan of action' with respect to the utilisation of Rs 64,179.55 crores allocated for strengthening public health infrastructure for pandemic preparedness.
"The ministry may also apprise the committee about the feedback and assessment pertaining to key performance indicators related to surveillance, testing, hospital infrastructure, logistics at the district levels. The committee observes that the steps taken to combat the second wave of pandemic were not sufficient and more concrete action could have been undertaken to contain the impact of Covid," it said.
The committee noted that structural and operational corrections are required to prepare for future health emergencies. It, therefore, recommended that every state should establish at least one medical college and hospital as a 'Centre of Excellence' for proper health surveillance during emergency situations.