KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 1 — Didn’t have time to read up on Omicron, the latest Covid-19 variant of concern that is triggering new travel restrictions worldwide within days of its discovery?
Here are eight things you need to know about the Omicron variant:
- When was it first detected?
Short answer: Just a few days ago
On November 26, the World Health Organization said the B.1.1.529 variant (now Omicron) was first reported by South Africa on November 24, adding that the first known confirmed infection from this variant was from a sample collected on November 9.
It was on November 26 that the WHO named the variant Omicron, and categorised it to be the latest Covid-19 variant of concern (VOC).
Among other things, a Covid-19 variant of concern generally refers to a virus variant which had genetic changes or mutations and has been demonstrated to be linked with any of these changes (increase in transmissibility or spread of the virus, increase in virulence or how severe its symptoms would be, or decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures).
- Why is it named Omicron?
On May 31, 2021, WHO introduced a new naming system based on the Greek alphabet for Covid-19 virus variants (variants of concern or variants of interest), to make it easier for the public to refer to them instead of their scientific names (such as B.1.1.529) and to avoid discriminatory labelling of variants based on the countries where they were first detected.
Previously, WHO had already used the first 12 letters of the Greek alphabet to refer to different variants including the current dominant variant worldwide Delta, but skipped the 13th letter “nu” and the 14th letter “xi” and used the 15th letter “Omicron” instead for this latest variant.
In WHO’s statement to the Associated Press, the global health organisation said “nu” sounds too much like the word “new” and “xi” was not used as it is a common Chinese surname, and WHO’s best practices for naming diseases avoid “causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”
- What do we know about it
Short answer: Under study, but vaccines and prevention are still important
In the latest update on November 28, WHO said it was still “not yet clear” whether Omicron is more transmissible or spreads more easily when compared to other variants including Delta.
“There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants,” WHO said, adding that understanding how severe the Omicron variant is will take days to several weeks.
Does Omicron change the effectiveness of existing vaccines, tests, and treatments for Covid-19?
WHO said it is working with technical partners to understand what impact Omicron may have on vaccines, but said that existing vaccines are still important and remain effective in reducing severe disease and death.
PCR tests can detect Omicron infections and there are ongoing studies on whether Omicron has any impact on other Covid-19 test types such as rapid antigen tests.
According to WHO, corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will still be effective to manage patients with severe Covid-19, and that it would be studied whether other treatments are still as effective.
Separately, in a technical document on November 28, WHO said no deaths linked to the Omicron variant had been reported to date, but cautioned that the overall global risk linked to Omicron is assessed to be “very high.”
- Where has it been detected so far
Short answer: Many countries, none in Singapore so far
On November 26, Malaysia’s Health Ministry had at that time noted that Omicron cases had been reported in South Africa with 77 cases then, Botswana (four cases) and Hong Kong (two cases).
The first cases in these three places were detected on November 11 (Botswana), South Africa (November 14), Hong Kong with the individual having a travel history involving South Africa (November 25), the ministry had said.
Since then, Omicron has reportedly been detected in multiple other countries and territories, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Israel, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the Netherlands.
On November 29, Malaysia’s neighbour Singapore cited Australia’s health authorities when stating that two travellers — who had travelled from South Africa and transited at Changi Airport on November 27 and who have since arrived in Australia on November 28 — had tested positive for Covid-19 of the Omicron variant. The duo had tested negative on November 26 before departure.
On November 30, Singapore said it had taken steps in response to Omicron, including imposing travel restrictions involving seven countries (South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe) and postponing vaccinated travel lanes with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, while confirming that no Covid-19 cases of the Omicron variant had been detected in Singapore.
- Has it reached Malaysia yet?
Short answer: No
Based on genomic surveillance conducted as of November 26, no cases of Omicron have been reported in Malaysia.
On the morning of November 30, the Health Ministry issued a statement to debunk a “fake news” that was spreading on social media about the purported detection of Omicron in Perak.
- What has Malaysia done so far?
Short answer: Immediate entry restrictions and strict quarantine measures
On November 26, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin announced precautionary measures that took effect on November 27, including stopping Malaysians from travelling to seven countries (South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe).
Also from November 27 onwards, Malaysia imposed a temporary entry ban on all foreigners who had a history of travel to the seven countries in the past 14 days, but allowed Malaysians and permanent resident pass holders to return to Malaysia from those countries with the condition of a mandatory 14-day quarantine at a designated quarantine centre regardless of their vaccination status and with quarantine at home disallowed.
The Health Ministry had also decided on November 26 to collect samples from all individuals who travelled from those countries for the purpose of genomic surveillance.
- What can Malaysians do?
Short answer: Basic SOPs, get that Covid-19 vaccine shot or booster shot
Protecting ourselves, our families and our communities is still about continuing to do the basics.
In its November 28 update on Omicron, WHO listed out the most effective steps that individuals can take to reduce the spread of Covid-19, including at least one metre physical distancing from others, and wearing a well-fitting mask.
Also included in WHO’s list of recommended actions by individuals in the face of Omicron are opening windows to improve ventilation, avoiding poorly-ventilated or crowded spaces, keeping hands clean, coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow or tissue, and getting vaccinated when it’s your turn.
In a tweet on November 30, Khairy wrote: “We know Omicron is probably more transmissible than Delta but we don’t yet know its virulence. 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.”
- How will Malaysians be affected?
Short answer: SOPs remain, pausing shift to endemic, travel to Singapore still okay
Apart from expected tighter controls of Malaysia’s international borders on countries where Omicron cases were detected, Senior Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said existing SOPs for states in Malaysia in Phase 3 and Phase 4 of the National Recovery Plan will remain for now.
Hishammuddin, however, said that the quartet of ministers handling the Covid-19 pandemic has decided to “pause” Malaysia’s efforts to shift to the endemic phase until more is known about the Omircon variant.
Unlike Japan and Israel which have announced entry bans to all foreigners and Morocco which will temporarily ban all inbound international flights in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant, Singapore — which is where many Malaysians live and work — has not introduced such bans.
Instead, Singapore on November 30 said it will be enhancing its Covid-19 testing measures for travellers arriving in Singapore from December 2, 11.59pm onwards, with different border measures also applicable based on a country’s category.
Under those measures, travellers with travel history of being in the list of Category II countries including Malaysia — in the past 14 days before taking a non-vaccinated travel lane flight to Singapore — would have to do a PCR test upon arrival in Singapore.
Singapore’s Health Ministry on November 30 said that separate measures will apply to vaccinated travel lane (VTL) travellers by land with Malaysia, who will only be subject to an antigen rapid test upon arrival.