The government on Saturday wrote to five states - Odisha, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Mizoram, and the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir - to express concern over a rapid increase in daily new Covid cases and mortality rates, and underline the danger posed by the Omicron variant.
Letters signed by Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan urged concerned state and UT officials to enhance surveillance of foreign arrivals (particularly from 'at risk' countries), monitor emerging hotspots, and ensure that all samples from Covid patients are sent for genome sequencing.
Among those flagged, J&K's Kathua district reported a staggering 727 per cent increase in new cases between November 26 and December 2, as compared to a week earlier.
In the same period in Karnataka's Tumkur district cases spiked by 152 per cent, and three Tamil Nadu districts also reported a worrying increase in new cases.
Similarly massive surges in weekly caseloads were seen in four Mizoram districts, including Saiha (237 per cent), and six Odisha districts, including Dhenkanal (667 per cent), the government noted.
The government also expressed concern over jumps in Covid-related mortality figures from Kerala.
12 deaths in Thrissur district between November 19 and November 25 jumped to 128 the next week, and 70 deaths in Malappuram district in the same period became 109 in the next.
Overall daily Covid numbers in India have been on a steady decline since the peak of the second wave in May, when over four lakh new cases were reported in a day. This morning fewer than 9,000 were reported from the previous 24 hours, and the national active caseload remains below 1 lakh.
Declining Covid case rates have been accompanied by an increase in vaccination rates.
All of this, however, is potentially under threat by the emergence of the Omicron variant, which medical experts and virologists believe is significantly more infectious than the Delta strain.
India today confirmed its third Omicron case - a 72-year-old Gujarat man returning from Zimbabwe.
"We've isolated him and are monitoring... A micro containment zone has been made... we will do tracing, testing of people," Manoj Aggarwal, Additional Chief Secretary, Health and Family Welfare Department, Gujarat, told news agency ANI.
First reported from South Africa last week, the Omicron variant is believed to have 50 mutations, including 30+ on the key spike protein. These mutations reportedly make the strain more infectious and give it greater resistance to current vaccines, although initial data says the symptoms are milder.
The World Health Organization has said more research is needed to understand the mutations, but also stressed that existing vaccines will continue to provide some protection. The government yesterday urged people to ensure they are double vaccinated as soon as possible.
On Thursday India's first two Omicron cases were reported from Karnataka - a 66-year-old man from South Africa, who landed in Bengaluru and then "fled" to Dubai, and a 46-year-old city doctor.
A number of other samples have been sent to genome sequencing labs for analysis of the infecting strain but, given Omicron's high transmissibility and the fact it seems to produce only mild symptoms, experts believe it is likely there are many more cases that are as yet undiscovered.