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Review Easing Of International Flight Curbs, Says PM Amid New Strain Worries


The ‘Omicron’ COVID-19 strain is reportedly more infectious than the ‘Delta’ variant (File)

New Delhi:

Amid growing global concern over the spread of ‘Omicron’ – the new and potentially most infectious COVID-19 variant discovered so far – Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday asked officials to review plans to ease restrictions on international travel to and from India.

Briefed on developments concerning the new variant, the Prime Minister highlighted the need to monitor all international arrivals, and conduct Covid tests with a specific focus on those arriving from countries designated as ‘at risk’ by the Union Health Ministry.

The Prime Minister also stressed the need to continue following Covid safety protocols, including wearing face masks in public, washing hands regularly, and maintaining social distance.

Prime Minister Modi today chaired a meeting of senior officials, including the Cabinet Secretary, the Health Secretary, and the chief of India’s Covid task force, to review the situation in the country.

The meeting was held a day after the Civil Aviation Ministry said scheduled international passenger flights could return to pre-Covid frequencies from December 15, with certain exceptions.

Countries listed as ‘at risk’ by the Health Ministry will continue to have restrictions on the number of weekly flights, based on existing ‘air bubble’ deals (or lack thereof) with India.

South Africa, Botswana, Israel, and Hong Kong are on the list of ‘at risk’ countries with ‘air bubble’ deals in place, meaning 75 per cent of scheduled passenger flights will be allowed till further notice.

The new variant was first detected in South Africa earlier this week, with several cases rapidly reported in neighbouring Botswana, as well as Israel and Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong cases were particularly troubling because the two patients (arrivals from southern Africa) had been quarantined in separate rooms, suggesting the B.1.1.529 variant is airborne.

On that note, the Prime Minister has asked for awareness campaigns about the importance of proper ventilation and the aerial spread of viruses, including the coronavirus.

Earlier today Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called on the Prime Minister to ban all flights from countries reporting ‘Omicron’ Covid cases. He was followed by Gujarat and Mumbai authorities announcing additional measures for international arrivals from ‘at risk’ countries.

Globally, several countries have already imposed travel bans and restrictions on flights to and from South Africa, where the ‘Omicron’ strain was first detected, and neighbouring countries.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Israel and Australia have all enforced restrictions or bans of varying degrees, much to the dismay of the South African government, which called the decision “rushed”.

The World Health Organization (WHO), however, has called for caution in imposing such bans, and has advocated a “risk-based and scientific approach”.

The new Covid strain has been red flagged for “an alarmingly high number of mutations” that might make it more resistant to vaccines, increase transmissibility and lead to more severe symptoms.

The variant is believed to have 50 mutations, including over 30 on the spike protein.

The spike protein is the target of most current COVID-19 vaccines and is what the virus uses to unlock access to our body’s cells. Researchers are still trying to confirm whether this makes it more transmissible or lethal than earlier variants, and if existing vaccines can protect against the strain.

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