KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 30 — Malaysians must maintain measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection while researchers assess the dangers of the new Omicron variant, said Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.

Omicron is the designation the World Health Organisation (WHO) has given to the variant of concern B.1.1.529, which was first detected in South Africa and has alarmed global health authorities with its high number of mutations that could lead it to evade existing immunity.

“We know Omicron is probably more transmissible than Delta but we don’t yet know its virulence,” the minister said today.

“What we can do in the meantime is step up public health interventions (masks, distancing, hygiene), improve indoor air flow, keep our aged safe & take a booster when offered.”

Health experts have expressed concern about Omicron as it has over twice as many mutations as the Delta variant that has swept most parts of the world this year.

While it is not yet known how severe Omicron infections could be, preliminary data has shown that it was outcompeting the already-infectious Delta to become the dominant variant in parts of South Africa.

Countries around the world have begun closing their borders to travellers from South Africa as a precaution but cases of Omicron infections have already been detected in parts of Asia, Europe and North America.

Malaysia has spent most of 2021 in various stages of lockdown owing to an infection wave caused by the Delta variant and was only now beginning to a slow return to normalcy.