As concerns grow over a new COVID variant, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday called for a proactive approach and a review of plans for easing of international travel curbs and urged people to be more cautious while several states moved quickly to take precautionary measures and remain vigilant.
Two South African returnees to Bengaluru, meanwhile, tested positive for COVID-19 and their samples sent for further tests to determine the exact variant, said a Karnataka state official.
Modi, who was briefed by officials about the recently discovered variant Omicron during a comprehensive meeting here to review the public health preparedness and COVID-19 vaccination, also highlighted the need for monitoring all international arrivals, their testing as per guidelines, with a specific focus on countries identified 'at risk'.
Officials briefed the prime minister about the new Variant of Concern Omicron along with its characteristics and the impact seen in various countries, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said in a statement.
The implications of the variant for India were also discussed, it said. The Omicron variant, which scientists say has a high number of mutations, was first detected in South Africa last week A World Health Organisation(WHO) panel has classified it as a highly transmissible variant of concern, the same category that includes the Delta variant.
During the meeting which lasted for about two hours, Prime Minister Modi spoke about the need to be proactive in the light of the new variant and urged people to be more cautious and take proper precautions like masking up and maintaining social distance, the PMO statement said. The WHO also asserted that at no cost should "we let our guard down."
Modi asked "officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the emerging new evidence", the statement said, even as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal urged the prime minister to stop flights coming to India from those countries which are affected by the new variant.
The prime minister's directive to officials came a day after the Civil Aviation Ministry announced the resumption of scheduled international flights to and from India from December 15 after 20 months of coronavirus-induced suspension.
India's decision to resume scheduled international passenger flights also came at a time when various countries such as the UK, Germany, Singapore, Israel, France and Italy have restricted air travel from southern Africa where the cases of new coronavirus variant with serious health implications have been reported.
In a tweet after the meeting, Modi said, "reviewed the COVID-19 and vaccination-related situation. In light of the new variant, we remain vigilant, with a focus on containment and ensuring increased second dose coverage."
During the meeting, the prime minister was also given an overview of the sequencing efforts in the country and the variants circulating in the country, the PMO statement said.
Modi directed that genome sequencing samples be collected from international travellers and community as per norms, tested through the network of labs already established under the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) and early warning signals identified for COVID-19 management, the statement said.
Prime Minister Modi also spoke about the need to increase the sequencing efforts and make it more broad-based.
Bengaluru Rural Deputy Commissioner K Srinivas, under whose jurisdiction Kempegowda International Airport comes, told reporters that from (November) 1 to 26 a total of 94 people have come from South Africa and out of them two have tested positive for COVID-19.
Both the infected persons have been quarantined, are being monitored by authorities and their samples sent for further tests to ascertain the variant, he said.
The WHO asked countries in the southeast Asia region to scale up surveillance, strengthen public health and social measures, and enhance vaccination coverage.
The global health body said festivities and celebrations must include all precautionary measures and crowds and large gatherings must be avoided.
"At no cost should we let our guard down," said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO, South-East Asia Region, adding that countries must enhance surveillance and sequencing.
Based on updated information on circulating variants and response capacities, countries should assess the risk of importation through international travel and take measures accordingly, she said.
In a tweet, Chief Minister Kejriwal emphasised that the country had "recovered" from the COVID-19 pandemic with "great difficulty".
"I urge Hon'ble PM to stop flights from those countries which are affected by new variant. With great difficulty, our country has recovered from Corona. We shud do everything possible to prevent this new variant from entering India," Kejriwal tweeted.
Meanwhile, as much as 64 per cent of respondents in a survey conducted over the decision to allow scheduled international operations to and from India want the government to reconsider it in the wake of the emergence of the new coronavirus variant.
The survey was carried out by the online platform LocalCircles immediately after the government announced the resumption of scheduled international flight services, which remain suspended since March 2020 due to the pandemic.
Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi also expressed concern over the emergence of the new coronavirus variant and asked the government to provide vaccine security to the people of the country.
The Union Health Ministry on Friday said the countries in Europe, including the United Kingdom, and South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel have been put in the 'at-risk' category.
New COVID Variant Omicron Scare: States Take Precautionary Steps
KERALA: The state government said authorities are vigilant but as of now there is no cause for concern in the state.
Health Minister Veena George said the state has taken all precautionary steps as per the guidelines of the Centre and surveillance would be strengthened at all airports.
KARNATAKA: Guidelines given to airports that those travelling from countries at 'high risk' category to the state have to undergo a test despite having a COVID test report, and they will be allowed outside the airport only after testing negative, said Health Minister K Sudhakar.
Even after testing negative they will have to remain at home and after seven days they will have to undergo a test once again, and after getting a negative report, one can go out, he added.
GUJARAT: Passengers from countries categorized as `at risk' by the Union Health Ministry will have to undergo COVID-19 tests upon arrival if they are not fully vaccinated, an official said in Ahmedabad.
"As per the letter issued to us on Friday by the Union Health Ministry, RT-PCR test is mandatory for all incoming travellers who do not have vaccination certificate," said state Additional Chief Secretary (Health) Manoj Aggarwal.
Those who are fully vaccinated will also be screened at the airport and allowed to proceed if they do not show any symptoms of the infection, he said.
TAMIL NADU: The state has intensified precautionary measures at all the four international airports and appointed four health department officials to personally monitor the situation, State Minister Ma Subramanian said.
These officials would be stationed at Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai and Tiruchirappalli airports.
MADHYA PRADESH: Minister for Medical Education Vishvas Sarang said genome sequencing is being carried out in a speedy manner. He said although nobody has been found infected with Omicron variant in the state so far, the government is keeping an eye on the situation.
MAHARASHTRA: Mumbai Mayor Kishori Pednekar said all passengers coming to the city from South Africa will be quarantined.
Similar restrictions might come into force for the passengers coming from other countries affected by the new variant of the virus, she said.