KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 30 — Malaysia is tightening its borders by preventing entry to visitors from countries that have recorded cases of Covid-19 from the Omicron variant, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said today.

In a statement, the senior minister in charge of security said the government has decided to pause Malaysia’s move into the endemic phase until more information on the SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern is available.

“Countries like South Africa, Italy, Denmark, Australia, United Kingdom, Belgium and Hong Kong have all recorded cases of Omicron variant. As such, SOPs for states in Phase 3 and 4 will remain for the time being.

“We’ve also decided to pause our efforts to move into the endemic stage until we know more about the VOC (Varian of Concern) Omicron,” he said.

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.

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

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.

On November 27 Malaysia had already banned visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe from entering Malaysia.

Malaysians and permanent residents who want to return from these countries will have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine period at a government facility.

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 a slow return to normalcy.