The Omicron variant is on the rise in India, with nine new cases reported in Rajasthan and seven more in Maharashtra, all of which had a travel history to high-risk countries or close contact with patients, but the government said it anticipates the severity of Omicron to be "low."
India's Omicron cases stood at 21 on Dec. 5.
Six of the seven new cases reported in Maharashtra came from Pimpri Chinchwad, which includes a 44-year-old woman who came from Nigeria’s Lagos, and her two daughters. The remaining three were close contacts with the patients.
Of those six patients, three patients were unvaccinated as they were only minors. Another case in Maharashtra came from Pune, which involved a 47-year-old man who had a travel history to Finland.
These cases follow Maharasthra's first Omicron case, which was reported on Dec. 4, involving a 33-year-old Kalyan-Dombivali resident who returned from South Africa's Cape Town.
Meanwhile, the nine Omicron cases reported in Rajasthan include a four-member family from South Africa who attended a wedding in Jaipur, as well as five of their acquaintances. They were confirmed to be infected with the new variant via genome sequencing on Dec. 5.
India reported its first two Omicron cases on Dec. 2, both of which were from Karnataka and had been fully vaccinated. The first patient was a 66-year-old man from South Africa, while the second was a 46-year-old doctor from Bengaluru with no prior travel history.
The third case was reported in Gujarat on Dec. 4 where a 72-year-old man who returned from Zimbabwe tested positive for the variant. The fifth case, involving a 37-year-old fully vaccinated man with a travel history to Tanzania, was reported in Delhi.
The emergence of Omicron has prompted several states in India to impose new restrictions on domestic and international flights, such as requiring travelers to take PCR tests upon arrival. India's Ministry of Health said the severity of Omicron remains unclear but it anticipates it to be "low."
“Given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to delta variant as evidenced by high seropositivity, the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low. However, scientific evidence is still evolving,” the ministry said in a statement on Dec. 3, adding that the government is monitoring the situation closely.
India aims to gear up its scientific and medical community to develop diagnostics and carry out genomic surveillance, as well as generate evidence about viral and epidemiologic characteristics, it stated.
"It is possible that it could become [the] dominant variant," Swaminathan said during a Reuters event on Dec. 3, adding that it's impossible for scientists to make that prediction. The Delta variant, she said, accounts for 99 percent of COVID-19 cases around the world.
Despite that, Swaminathan said Omicron is "highly transmissible," based on preliminary data from southern Africa.
"How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago," Swaminathan said, according to Reuters. Also unclear is Omicron's effect on vaccinated people or individuals who have gained natural immunity from a prior COVID-19 infection, she said.