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A vendor sells face masks to be used as a precaution against COVID-19 in Bengaluru. Image Credit: AP

New Delhi: The newly-emerged omicron variant is likely to be less lethal in India than the delta-led virus wave that overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums earlier this year, according to a prominent epidemiologist.

Given the widespread exposure of Indians to COVID-19 virus and a reasonably-high vaccination rate, India will likely be less affected by the new strain, Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Thursday. That may change if omicron is effective at getting past all immune defences, he said.

As omicron - first detected in South Africa late last month - appears to cause mild infections, “the damage in terms of hospitalisation and stress on the health system will be less than what we have seen in the second wave,” Laxminarayan said.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has also said that there is no indication that the omicron is deadlier than other strains.

India saw the world’s fastest-surging COVID-19 outbreak in early-May with daily new infections exceeding 400,000 when the highly-infectious delta variant was ripping through the crowded nation of 1.4 billion people. The deadly virus wave invigorated the country’s vaccination campaign - more than a billion shots have been administered already - and created high levels of natural immunity in the population.

More than two-thirds of India’s population had antibodies against COVID-19, a national serological survey found in a study in June and July. About 48.5 per cent of India’s adult population is fully vaccinated with two doses, according the Health Ministry data.

So far, India has not detected a case with the omicron variant. But it is “just matter of time” before it’s spotted in India, Laxminarayan said. The newest strain has rapidly spread to two dozen countries since being detected on Nov. 24.

At least six passengers travelling from “at risk” countries tested positive and their samples have been sent for genome sequencing, the government said. India has bolstered its genome sequencing efforts and tightened travel rules.

The emergence and rapid spread of the new variant in other countries may bolster India’s inoculation program, according to Laxminarayan. It may prod some reluctant people to get vaccinated and others to return for their second dose.