Ministry health

Omicron: INSACOG advises booster doses, but ministry wants more information

Students apply the finishing touches to paintings made to raise awareness of the novel variant of the omicron coronavirus, in Mumbai on November 29, 2021. Photo: Reuters / Niharika Kulkarni

  • The laboratory consortium set up by the Union Ministry of Health is the first official Indian body to recommend booster doses.
  • However, INSACOG said the primary goal should be to fully immunize all eligible citizens – and then consider boosters.
  • The health ministry said in a statement that there was no reason to believe existing vaccines were less effective against omicron and that more scientific evidence was needed.

New Delhi: The consortium of laboratories set up by the Union Ministry of Health to study the genomic sequences of coronavirus strains in India has recommended that a third booster dose be considered for certain groups, but only after the eligible population has been fully vaccinated first.

The Indian SARS-COV-2 Genome Consortium (INSACOG) recommendation comes amid uncertainty about the efficacy of existing vaccines to fight the omicron variant. Although there is no evidence yet to show that the vaccines are less effective, the fact that the variant has several mutations on the spike protein – which existing vaccines target – has become of concern.

Although INSACOG is not an advisory body, it is the first official Indian body to recommend booster doses. A decision on the booster doses will be made by the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NTAGI).

In its weekly bulletin, dated November 29, INSACOG said: “Immunization of all remaining unvaccinated at risk people and consideration of a booster dose for people 40 years of age and over, targeting d ” first those most at risk / high exposure can be considered, as the low levels of neutralizing antibodies in current vaccines are unlikely to be sufficient to neutralize omicron, although the risk of serious disease is still likely to be reduced.

The Indian government on Thursday confirmed two cases of the omicron variant in India. While one is a South African national who has already left the country, the second person is a resident of Bengaluru. Both were fully vaccinated.

The INSACOG opinion also said, based on preliminary data, “it is likely that the population’s immunity and vaccine-induced immunity are not sufficiently blocking” the spread of omicron. However, he also noted that further studies are needed to “quantify aspects of immune escape and transmissibility” of the variant.

“Clinical aspects such as the severity of the disease in naive, previously infected or vaccinated subjects are currently unknown,” the bulletin said.

Anurag Agrawal, the director of CSIR-IGIB which is part of INSACOG, said The hindu that the forum’s recommendation “reflected the views of the World Health Organization on the same about immunizing the unvaccinated first, then reviewing evidence-based boosters.”

“Current evidence of a potential immune breakout, breakthroughs in vaccination and a possible need for a booster are all we have passed on. In a few weeks we will have better information [from South Africa] on whether omicron is linked to increased disease severity, ”he said.

Several Western countries have already approved booster doses six months after the full vaccination. WHO has repeatedly criticized the approval of booster injections, saying the goal should first be to fully immunize populations in all countries.

On Friday, the Department of Health published an FAQ on omicron, saying it is important to note that the strain has been declared as a variant of concern “based on the mutations observed” and the possibility of increased transmission and immune breakout, and preliminary evidence of a detrimental change. in the epidemiology of COVID-19, such as the increase in re-infections.

“[D]definitive evidence of increased remission and immune evasion is awaited, ”the ministry said.

While acknowledging that omicron is likely to spread in India, “the extent and magnitude of the increase in cases and especially the severity of the disease that will be caused is still unclear,” the statement said.

“While there is no evidence to suggest that existing vaccines do not work on omicron, some of the mutations reported on [the] The spike gene can decrease the effectiveness of existing vaccines. However, vaccine protection is also provided by antibodies as well as by cellular immunity, which should be relatively better preserved, ”the statement added.

Vaccines are therefore expected to continue to protect against serious disease and the priority continues to be to increase vaccination coverage. “If eligible but not vaccinated, it is necessary to be vaccinated”, concludes the press release.

India has administered more than 126 crore in doses so far, but it is unlikely to meet the government’s target of fully vaccinating 94 crore adults. About a third of eligible Indians have been fully immunized, according to Our World in Data. And according to the Co-WIN dashboard, since the week of October 9 to 15, the number of people taking the second dose is higher than those receiving the first.