India expects the Omicron variant of coronavirus to cause less severe disease, the health ministry said on Friday (Dec 3), thanks to vaccinations and high prior exposure to the Delta variant that infected nearly 70 per cent of the population by July.
Junior doctors protested to demand that staff numbers be beefed up, warning of a disastrous situation if the new variant overwhelmed health care facilities, although nearly half of India’s 944 million adults have been fully vaccinated.
As many as 84 per cent have received at least one dose, with more than 125 million people due for a second by the end of November, as the government pushes more to get inoculated in the face of Omicron.
“Given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to Delta variant… the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low,” the ministry said in a statement. “However, scientific evidence is still evolving.”
Both of India’s first two Omicron patients showed mild symptoms, the ministry added.
The ministry also told parliament that its immunisation experts were weighing the need for booster doses, after many lawmakers demanded a third shot for healthcare workers and the vulnerable.
Discussions on vaccinating the 145 million children aged between 12 and 17 were also underway.
India reported 9,216 new Covid-19 infections on Friday after announcing its first two Omicron cases the previous day, as groups of resident doctors stayed away from non-critical work to demand new post-graduate students be enrolled to boost staffing.
The country, whose hospitals bore the brunt of a record second surge in infections and deaths in April and May due to the Delta variant, has seen new cases plateauing around 10,000 in the past few weeks.
But the detection of the Omicron variant in the southern state of Karnataka, in one person with no recent travel history, has raised concerns of a third wave of infections.
“Healthcare institutions across the nation are running short of adequate workforce of resident doctors, with no admission in the current year yet,” the Federation of Resident Doctors’ Association of India, which represents dozens of government hospitals, said in a letter to the health minister.
“With the possibility of a future Covid-19 pandemic wave looming large, the situation will be disastrous for the healthcare sector.”
The government has had to delay student admissions due to ongoing legal disputes, including over reserving seats for the poor.
India has one of the worst doctor-to-patient ratios in the world, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi said recently the country would churn out more doctors in the next decade or so than the first 70 years of India’s independence.
At New Delhi’s Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, students shouted, “We want justice,” holding a banner and placards that said: “We are human, not robot.”
An aide to Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
India’s total Covid-19 cases have now reached 34.62 million, Health Ministry data showed.
Deaths rose by 391 on Friday to a total of 470,115.