Coming to grips with Omicron

Coming to grips with Omicron

The world was shaken again last week as the latest coronavirus variant emerged. First detected in South Africa a week earlier, Omicron is now a "variant of concern" -- the most serious category used by the World Health Organization, which said it poses a "very high" risk to public health.

The main concern is that Omicron has mutated in ways that could improve its ability to both spread and evade the defences provided by vaccines. That has raised such alarm that many countries, from the US to Thailand, have barred travellers from southern Africa, and a few, including Israel, have barred them from anywhere.

The new variant has now been found in at least two dozen countries including the US. South Korea on Wednesday reported its first five Omicron cases as daily coronavirus infections topped 5,000 for the first time. Two cases were also found in India.

Given the mystery about how Omicron might affect people, many countries have taken steps to prepare. Malaysia, which found its first Omicron case last Friday, has temporarily banned travellers from countries that have reported the variant and will delay a plan to set up so-called vaccinated travel lanes with the affected countries. It also reimposed a quarantine requirement for Malaysian citizens returning from affected nations, regardless of their vaccination status.

Malaysia has been slowly recovering from a surge that reached a peak of 24,000 infections a day in August before falling to around 5,000 lately, a trend that mirrors what we have seen in Thailand. With a vaccination rate of 80% of the total population, Malaysian authorities have been looking forward to treating the virus as endemic, like the flu.

Vietnam is also preparing to suspend flights to and from seven African countries. It has yet to detect any Omicron cases as it struggles to bring down infections, which still average around 14,000 a day.

Japan also reacted quickly, asking its airlines to completely stop taking reservations for inbound international flights before relenting in the face of criticism that authorities had gone too far. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said officials had been asked to "adequately take into account" people's wishes to travel home.

In any case, blanket travel bans won't stop Omicron's spread and will only place a "heavy burden" on lives and livelihoods, says the WHO.

It advised governments to take measures such as screening or quarantine of international passengers if needed. Secretary General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed concern about "blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities".

US President Joe Biden has also been calm, saying the new variant "is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic".

Singapore, which has shifted from a zero-Covid strategy to one of living with the virus, also refrained from reversing course on its border reopening, as it has one of the world's highest vaccination rates.

"Closing of borders, particularly in places with high rates of vaccination, is unnecessary," said Ooi Eng Eong, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the Duke-NUS Medical School.

It is true that Omicron has renewed uncertainty, as the WHO chief has said. It seems to be spreading quickly, but the degree to which it can evade vaccines remains unknown. While getting vaccines to everyone who needs them remains a top priority, the world has never effectively fought an infectious disease with just one set of tools.

To counter Omicron or any variants to come, treatments must also be cheap and accessible. On Wednesday, 194 WHO members agreed to start work on a new international accord to better handle future pandemics. But it expects the drafting process will take until 2024.

That's a long time to wait. The best the world, particularly the West, can do now is to have everyone vaccinated. I agree with AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes, who told the Bangkok Post International Forum last week: "If the world is not vaccinated, this virus will not go away. The West has to take it seriously."

The cost of PCR tests also needs to be lower. "Like Aids, we have to learn how to live with it (Covid-19)," said Mr Fernandes, adding that governments really need "a bit of common sense about what (measures) are really needed" as the world is at the beginning of the end of this virus.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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