SINGAPORE, Nov 30 — There are no locally detected cases of the Omicron variant so far, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said today. But as an added precaution, travellers and aircrew with recent travel histories to affected regions over the past 10 days are being tested.

To date, over 200 have been tested and 174 are negative.

Among the 174 were the seven passengers who had entered Singapore, after being on a Singapore Airlines transit flight from Johannesburg that carried two travellers who tested positive for the Omicron variant upon arrival in Sydney.

In a press release, MOH said that it is monitoring the situation closely and in particular, is looking out for more information on the Omicron variant including its transmissibility, incubation period, infectious duration, severity of illness and efficacy of existing vaccines.

Speaking at a press conference by the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that there are many aspects of the variant that need to be studied and listed five key aspects.

“One, how infectious is it compared to previous variants? Two, what’s the incubation and the infectious period? Three, can ART and other tests detect Omicron at the same level as other variants?

“Four, is it more or less harmful than Delta? Fifth, how well do existing vaccines work against it?”

In terms of vaccine efficacy, MOH in its statement said that early data suggests that current vaccines should remain effective against severe disease and death.

“As a highly vaccinated population with a strong booster programme currently in progress, our community would have some protection against this new variant,” it said.

It added, however, that more studies are needed to understand the actual impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines and treatments as some of the mutations found in the variant’s genome were previously known to enhance transmissibility and reduce vaccine efficacy in other variants with these mutations.

“Doctors from South Africa have observed that amongst the on ground cases with severe symptoms, 65 per cent are unvaccinated and the remaining 35 per cent are partially vaccinated.

“These are very brief, very early data, but this suggests that the vaccine could still be effective and underscores the importance of vaccines. If anything, it is a much more valuable insurance against a big unknown confronting the world now. So please continue to get your vaccinations and your booster shots,” Ong said.

“This is absolutely the wrong time to argue that because there are new variants, let’s not vaccinate and wait for a new vaccine… Absolutely the wrong time. People die because of such arguments and such decisions. Remember when we are faced with the unknown, we buy insurance.

“The insurance is now the existing vaccines. It is not a case where there are mutations and hence existing vaccines will not work because the human body is much more capable than that once vaccinated. There is a good chance existing vaccines will work against Omicron,” he added.

The MOH said that there has been a rapid increase in the proportion of cases that are infected by the Omicron variant in South Africa.

While the overall Covid-19 incidence rate in South Africa remains low, it is increasing, said MOH.

Other countries have also reported cases over the past few days, suggesting that the variant has spread globally with the variant detected in at least 13 other countries as of yesterday.

The ministry added that it is monitoring the situation closely, and is checking with health authorities worldwide to determine the variant’s characteristics.

“We have much to learn about the Omicron variant, and it remains to be seen whether it is more transmissible. But irrespective, our current health protocols will be able to deal with the prospect of infections arising in our shores,” said Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at MOH.

Today, Assoc Prof Mak also gave an update on the SIA transit flight from Johannesburg. 

The two travellers who tested positive for Omicron variant when they landed in Sydney had transited through Singapore’s Changi Airport, but they did not leave the airport and were identified in the isolated transit area, he said.

Of the seven passengers who entered Singapore, six are currently on stay-home notice and one of them, who was a close contact of one of the positive cases, is serving a quarantine order.

MOH has not assessed a “significant risk of infection coming into Singapore” from passengers on the transit flight, Assoc Prof Mak said. — TODAY