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Eye on Omicron: Testing at airport for arrivals from ‘at risk’ countries

With an eye on reports from across the world about Omicron, the new Covid “variant of concern”, the Central Government Sunday issued revised guidelines for international travellers arriving from Europe, including the UK, and 11 other “at risk” countries, mandating testing on arrival, home quarantine for seven days on a negative result, and a retest on the eighth day.

The Health Ministry directed all states to ensure that for international travellers from countries other than those labelled “at risk”, five per cent of a flight’s total number of passengers will have to undergo random-testing on arrival at airports.

The Centre has also decided to review the date of resumption of scheduled international commercial flights “as per the evolving global scenario”. On Friday, the Ministry of Civil Aviation had announced the resumption of these flights from December 15, after a 21-month gap.

The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on testing and surveillance of incoming international passengers, especially for those countries in the “at risk” category, will also be reviewed.

The Health Ministry has laid out five steps for international travellers from countries “at risk”:

* They will have to submit a sample for a Covid test at the point of arrival, and wait for the result before leaving or taking a connecting flight.

* If they test negative, they will have to follow home quarantine for seven days. This will be followed by a retest on the eighth day of arrival. They will have to self-monitor their health for the next seven days.

* If travellers test positive, their samples will be sent for genomic testing at the INSACOG laboratory network.

* Those testing positive shall be sent to a separate isolation facility and treated as per standard protocol, including contact tracing.

* The contacts of positive cases will be kept under institutional or home quarantine and monitored strictly by the state government concerned as per protocol.

Apart from all countries in Europe, including the UK, there are 11 other nations listed as “at-risk” by the Health Ministry: South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel.

On Sunday, the WHO said in a statement that there is no conclusive evidence as of now to suggest that the newly-discovered variant was more transmissible or could cause more severe diseases compared to other variants.

The Centre’s new guidelines, meanwhile, state that travellers from countries other than those “at risk” will be allowed to leave the airport but should self-monitor their health for 14 days’ post-arrival, excluding the five per cent to be random-tested.

If the travellers under home quarantine, or self-health monitoring, develop signs and symptoms suggestive of Covid or test positive on re-testing, they will have to immediately self-isolate and report to the nearest health facility, the guidelines state.

Separately, the Health Ministry Sunday directed all states to review past travel details of passengers arriving on international flights — and to strictly ensure testing on travellers coming from “at-risk countries”, and send the positive samples for genome sequencing promptly.

Several states, meanwhile, reacted with concern to the new variant.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote to the Prime Minister, requesting him to stop international flights from regions witnessing a rise in Covid cases.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said his government has decided to ramp up its genome sequencing efforts. The state will trace, test and, if need be, isolate international passengers who have arrived in the past one month, Chouhan said.

The key decision to review the resumption of normal international flights came a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed officials to review the lifting of travel restrictions in the backdrop of growing concerns about Omicron.

“Overall, the global situation in the wake of the Omicron virus was comprehensively reviewed. Various preventive measures in place and to be further strengthened were discussed. Government to review Standard Operating Procedure on testing & surveillance of incoming international passengers, especially for those countries identified ‘at risk’ category,” the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a statement.

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan, meanwhile, reminded the states that there is “already a reporting mechanism for obtaining past travel details of passengers coming through international flights”.

“…this should be reviewed at your level and the protocol provided by this Ministry should be strictly ensured, including testing on disembarkation of international travelers coming from ‘At Risk’ countries and sending all positive samples for genome sequencing to INSACOG (Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium) labs in a prompt manner,” Bhushan told the states in a letter.

The Health Secretary urged states to “significantly increase sampling” for genome sequencing of positive cases. “INSACOG has been established to monitor the circulating variants in the country. It is important at this juncture that states must significantly increase sampling from the general population/ community for genome sequencing by sending these samples to INSACOG lab network as per the policy,” Bhushan wrote.

The Health Ministry asked the states for continued monitoring of hotspots “where a recent cluster of positive cases have emerged”.

“In all such hotspots, saturation testing and sending of positive samples quickly for genome sequencing to designated INSACOG labs must be ensured in collaboration with the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). States should keep a close check on the emerging trend of cases and the positivity in an area and quickly delineate hotspots for effective containment,” Bhushan’s letter stated.

The Health Ministry has directed the states to implement a four-pronged approach: intensive containment; active surveillance; increased coverage of vaccination; and enforcement of Covid appropriate behaviour “in a very proactive manner”.

Following the high-level review by Modi, an urgent meeting was chaired by Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla. The meeting was attended by Dr, V K Paul, Member (Health), NITI Aayog; Dr. Vijay Raghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister; and senior officials from various ministries, including Health and Civil Aviation.

MHA officials said genomic surveillance for variants will be strengthened and intensified.

“Airport Health Officials (APHOs) and Port Health Officials (PHOs) to be sensitized for strict supervision of testing protocol at airports/ ports. Decision on effective date of resumption of scheduled commercial international passengers service, to be reviewed, as per the evolving global scenario. Closer watch on emerging pandemic situations within the country will be maintained,” the MHA said.

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