Amid mounting global concerns over new coronavirus strain 'Omicron', Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday stressed the need to be proactive and directed officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the "emerging new evidence".
Modi, who chaired a comprehensive meeting to review the situation related to COVID-19 and vaccination in the country, was briefed by top health officials about 'Omicron', described by WHO as a "variant of concern", with its characteristics and the impact seen in various countries.
Its implications for India were also discussed during the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said in a statement.
A World Health Organisation panel has named the new COVID strain 'omicron' and 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 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 said.
The Prime Minister highlighted the need for monitoring all international arrivals, their testing as per guidelines, with a specific focus on countries identified 'at risk'.
He also asked "officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the emerging new evidence", the statement said.
Modi's directive to officials comes 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 has come at a time when various countries such as Britain, Germany, Singapore, Israel, France and Italy have restricted air travel from southern Africa where the cases of new coronavirus variant of serious health implications have been reported.
However, the countries deemed 'at risk' of COVID-19 by the Union Health Ministry will be allowed to operate only a certain percentage of their pre-Covid scheduled flights, the Aviation Ministry stated.
The Centre on Thursday asked all states and union territories to conduct rigorous screening and testing of all international travellers coming from or transiting through South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana, where the variant has been detected.
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 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.
Officials briefed the Prime Minister about the global trends on coronavirus infections and highlighted that countries across the world have experienced multiple COVID-19 surges since the onset of the pandemic.
The PM also reviewed the situation in the country relating to COVID-19 cases and test positivity rates, the PMO said.
Modi was also apprised of the progress in vaccination and the efforts being made under the 'Har Ghar Dastak' campaign, and he directed that there is a need to increase the second dose coverage.
He also stressed that states need to be sensitised on the need to ensure that all those who have gotten the first dose of the COVID vaccine are given the second dose timely.
Officials also apprised Modi of the sero-positivity in the country from time to time, and its implications in public health response.
The Prime Minister also directed officials to work closely with state governments to ensure that there is proper awareness at the state and district level.
He told officials that intensive containment and active surveillance should continue in clusters reporting higher cases and required technical support be provided to states which are reporting higher cases presently, the PMO said.
Emphasising that awareness needs to be created about ventilation and air-borne behaviour of the virus, Modi instructed officials to coordinate with states to ensure that there are adequate buffer stocks of various medicines, the statement said.
He also asked officials to work with the states to review the functioning of medical infrastructure including pediatric facilities.
During the meeting, officials also briefed the Prime Minister that they are following a facilitative approach to newer pharmaceutical products.
Prime Minister Modi also asked officials to coordinate with states to ensure the proper functioning of PSA oxygen plants and ventilators.
Among others, the meeting was attended by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, NITI Aayog, Member (Health) Dr VK Paul, Home Secretary A K Bhalla, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan, Secretary (Biotechnology) Rajesh Gokhale, ICMR DG Balram Bhargava and Principal Scientific Advisor to the government of India K Vijay Raghavan.