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Mystery of how Karnataka doctor got Omicron unsolved, but community transmission ‘improbable’

Karnataka was India’s first state to report 2 Omicron cases on 2 December. One of them is a local doctor with no travel history of his own or among 200 contacts.

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Bengaluru: Nearly a week after Karnataka reported India’s first two cases of the Omicron variant of Covid, including in a doctor with no travel history, the source of that infection is still a mystery.

The government decided to trace the doctor’s activities over the last one month to determine the source of infection, but couldn’t find any travel history. Around 200 primary and secondary contacts of the doctor have been traced so far, but health department officials haven’t found anybody with a travel history.

“Experts are contemplating whether the mutated virus is spreading in the local population as well, considering the new strain in a person who had no travel history. But until we find some evidence, every logical reasoning is a possibility,” Karnataka Health and Family Welfare Minister Dr K. Sudhakar told ThePrint.

Virologist Dr V. Ravi, who is the nodal officer at Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) lab in NIMHANS, Bengaluru, and also the chairman of Karnataka’s committee for Covid-19 genome sequencing, said there was a sense of déjà vu for the state.

“All primary and secondary contacts of the doctor have been traced and nobody has had contact with anyone who has an international travel history. New mutations can occur anywhere in the world, but to me, it looks like there is a missing link that we will never be able to establish just like in the case of Jubilant Pharma last year,” Ravi told ThePrint. 

The virologist was referring to the first Covid wave in the state last year, when a pharmaceutical company in Mysuru, Jubilant Generics, became the epicentre of the largest cluster, contributing 74 out of the total 96 cases in the district then. It led to 28 places being declared as containment zones. However, the source of the infection was never found, despite the government setting up an inquiry.

However, the pharma company had insisted in April 2020 that none of its employees who contracted Covid had an international travel history in the previous six months.

Also read: Initial hospital data in South Africa’s Omicron epicentre shows milder disease

‘Not in community transmission stage’ 

Experts have insisted that, theoretically, if the source of infection is not found, then it makes ground for assumption of community transmission, but a practical approach suggests otherwise.

“The good news is there are no fresh clusters. By now, we should have seen more clusters if there was widespread community transmission,” Dr Ravi said.

He added that the probability of the same set of mutations independently evolving in more than one geographical location is remote. “Theoretically it can take place, but the probability is very low,” he said.

Karnataka has been witnessing an uptick in vaccinations amid fears over the Omicron variant. As on 4 December, the state had covered 93 per cent of its eligible population with the first dose of vaccine and 64 per cent with both doses.

“More people are turning up for vaccinations now. We had seen a dip in vaccination demand over the last few months with complacency setting in. Vaccinating all eligible citizens with both doses of vaccine is our priority,” Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Commissioner Gaurav Gupta told ThePrint.

103 school students infected in Karnataka

As on 6 December, a total of 103 school students — between classes one to ten — were among the 7,067 active Covid cases in Karnataka. The biggest contributor to the number is the Chikkamagaluru cluster where a residential school has reported 103 cases including 92 children, staff and parents of staff. The index (first identified) patient in this cluster too is still a mystery.

“We have sent 40 more samples for testing. Every positive sample from the cluster has been sent for genome sequencing. We are not able to find the index patient since detection of Covid-19 came at a later stage. None of the students or the staff have left the school premises in three weeks and we do not know how they got infected yet,” District Health Officer Dr Manjunath told ThePrint.

Karnataka’s Primary and Secondary Education Minister B. Nagesh told reporters Monday that the government will consider closure of schools only if it is necessary.

“We are as worried as parents over clusters in schools and colleges, but the percentage of infection is very, very low. We should also note that almost all students are asymptomatic. In a previous school clusters too, all children recovered without showing any symptoms,” Nagesh said. 

Dr Ravi pointed out that while the global trend for Covid-19 has shown that the paediatric population (under 18 years old) has presented with very mild disease, data from South Africa says that Omicron variant is common among young people. “So far, thankfully we have not seen such a scenario here,” he said.

Health experts are concerned about containing the virus and all its variants before infections multiply and begin to strain the healthcare systems.

“We can manage it if, say, 10,000 people are infected but if 1,00,000 are infected and barely 5 per cent of them require hospitalisation, it starts straining the system. We are currently in a very safe zone and have to keep infections low,” Ravi added.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

Also read: Omicron has higher risk of reinfection than Delta, Beta variants, Singapore’s health ministry says


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