By Corina Tan
As the world attempts to transition into an endemic stage of the Covid-19 virus, news of another variant has been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24th. Since then, it has been detected in other countries outside of Africa, including Israel, Germany, Italy, Belgium, United Kingdom and Hong Kong. The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday, classified the B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern and renamed it Omicron.
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs,” the WHO said, pointing to worrying characteristics. The WHO also said that it could take several weeks to determine if there are changes in transmissibility, the severity or implications for Covid vaccines, tests and treatments. Omicron is now in the most-troubling category along with the globally dominant Delta variant.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”
Despite this advice, nations rush to ban flights and close borders to visitors from several African nations. The United Kingdom has moved swiftly to place South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Malawi and Zimbabwe on a travel red list as fears increase that Omicron could be the worse Covid-19 variant yet.
In Malaysia, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin announced that Malaysians will no longer be allowed to travel to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, while foreigners with a travel history to any of these countries within the last 14 days will be denied entry. Malaysians or Permanent Residents who are returning home from these countries will have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine at designated isolation centres and will not be allowed to quarantine at home, regardless of their vaccination status.
“Besides that, samples will be taken from these individuals who arrive from these countries as part of the genomic surveillance.”
“The Ministry of Health (MOH) views the emergence of this new variant seriously and we will improve genomic surveillance, including on arriving individuals from countries that have reported cases of this new variant,” Khairy told reporters at a media conference on November 26th.
Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam, Monash University Malaysia’s molecular virologist said that “Chances are it is already here or near us. In a recent case in Belgium, for example, the infected patient didn’t have any travel history to Africa.”
“For now, it is best to get both jabs and booster doses if you are eligible. Wear face masks, avoid attending large gatherings, practise good hand hygiene, ensure physical distancing, as well as rooms are well ventilated.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, urged people to reduce their chances of catching the virus. “What’s really important as an individual is to lower your exposure. These proven public health measures, have never been more important – distancing, mask-wearing, avoiding crowded spaces, good ventilation, and when it’s your turn, get vaccinated,” she said.