Covishield's COVID-19 vaccine
A health worker inoculates a woman at a vaccination Centre in New Delhi Image Credit: AFP

India has rolled out the third Covid-19 vaccine dose — the booster — at the right time. It is an essential tool in stifling the spread of Omicron, a highly transmissive variant of the new coronavirus that causes Covid and is fast becoming the dominant strain worldwide, outstripping the Delta. The strain is responsible for the eight-fold increase in infections in India in the past ten days. So the timing couldn’t have been better.

The booster doesn’t stop infection but will reduce the severity and help in rapid recovery. Studies have shown that Omicron infections are less severe, resulting in fewer hospitalisations and deaths. But the constellation of mutations helps Omicron spread faster than other variants. And India, which has had around 36 million Covid cases, including 484,000 deaths, can ill-afford another coronavirus wave, especially after last year’s Delta surge.

That was a wake-up call. The Delta rampage strained the medical infrastructure in the country as Covid cases soared. Hospitals ran out of beds, and oxygen cylinders were in short supply as fatalities skyrocketed.

Harsh lessons have helped

That now seems more like a bad dream. A year later, India ramped up the health infrastructure with additional capacity in hospitals and newer oxygen plants. The harsh lessons have helped. Although 179,723 cases — mostly believed to be Omicron infections — were reported on Monday, only 5-10 per cent have sought hospitalisation. That is a huge relief.

Omicron infections may not be as severe as Delta’s, but they can be fatal to people with compromised immunity and underlying medical conditions. Vaccinations have helped battle variants, and India will take comfort from fully inoculating 47 per cent of the population. A large segment of the population has hybrid immunity from the vaccine and a Covid infection. Yet human immune against SARS-CoV-2 wanes over time and a booster is required to rev it back.

One million booster doses were administered on Monday to frontline workers, people over the age of 60 and people suffering from medical conditions. These are the most vulnerable sections of society, and they need it most. The 10 million people who have had their second dose nine months ago will soon be eligible for the booster. And India will breathe easy.