India on Thursday confirmed its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in two people who traveled abroad, and a top medical expert urged people to get vaccinated.
The Health Ministry said the cases involved two men in southern Karnataka state who came from abroad. It did not say which country they had come from, or if they were vaccinated. Health official Lav Agarwal said all contacts of the two men have been traced and tested for the virus.
India has already classified several countries as “at risk” in response to the Omicron variant, and travelers from those countries are being tested after they arrive in India. In addition, India is testing 2 percent of all other international travelers randomly.
Genome sequencing is also being done to detect the variant. India has tested nearly 8,000 passengers since Wednesday.
Balram Bhargava, head of the Indian Council of Medical Research, India’s top medical research organization, urged people not to panic and get vaccinated. “Increased vaccine uptake is the need of the hour. Don’t delay in getting fully vaccinated,” he said.
Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, a health policy expert, said the focus should be on finding the unvaccinated and making sure they receive shots. “Some of the hesitancy may disappear on the news of the new variant. But this can’t be taken for granted,” he said.
Some Indian states have issued strict restrictions on international arrivals as precautionary measures, including mandatory COVID-19 tests for those coming from South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.
More than 56 percent of Indians have received at least one vaccine dose — 32 percent are fully vaccinated and 24 percent have received a single shot, according to Our World In Data.