4:16pm 02/12/2021
Omicron: angel or devil?

Sin Chew Daily

Health minister Khairy Jamaluddin said in a Wednesday press conference that Malaysia would bar the entry of travelers from high-risk countries with reported cases involving the new Omicron variant.

As for Malaysians who have visited these countries, they will have to be put on 14-day mandatory quarantine at designated quarantine centers. In the meantime, passengers arriving by air or land through the VTL scheme will have to take screening tests on the third and seventh days after arrival, while VTL schemes with countries with reported cases involving the Omicron variant will be suspended.

This is a wise decision by the Malaysian government to fend off the invasion of Omicron.

On Tuesday, Khairy urged Malaysians to take a third booster dose and enhance personal public health measures. “We know Omicron is probably more transmissible than Delta, but we don’t yet know its virulence,” he said. Anyway, prevention is still better than cure!

WHO has recently warned of Omicron’s very high transmissibility globally, with grave consequences.

Instances of the variant, which was first reported barely three weeks ago on November 11, are still not very common, but the spread has been fast and wide to over 20 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer, admitted on Monday that the existing vaccine provides less protection against the new coronavirus variant and that his company had begun testing its current vaccine against the Omicron variant.

In addition to Pfizer, other vaccine manufacturers such as Moderna and Russia’s Sputnik V have also announced plans to develop vaccines against Omicron, worrying that existing vaccines may not be able to tackle new virus variants.

Nevertheless, epidemiological experts from countries like Germany, Australia and South Africa have said optimistically that even as Omicron is highly transmissible, its virulence could be drastically reduced due to the mutations, meaning it could speed up the end of the COVID-19 pandemic!

How big is Omicron’s threat to humanity? Experts say a conclusive statement can only be made in weeks, and as such, we have no way to tell whether Omicron is going to be an angel or devil at this juncture. But what we do know is that it pays to be a little more cautious, having experienced the ravaging Delta variant.

The new variant mainly comes from an area with relatively low vaccination rate.

One of the initiators of COVAX Richard Hatchett said the virus spreads faster in places with low vaccination rates and hence higher chances for new mutant variants. The emergence of Omicron in Africa has proven this point.

Currently some 97% of Malaysia’s adult population has been fully vaccinated but under 10% of the adult population of most African nations has received only a single dose of vaccine, including Sudan, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria.

In South Africa and Botswana, where the Omicron variant was first detected, only about 40-50% of their adult population has been given one dose of vaccine.

Given the uneven distribution of vaccines around the world, there may still be new virus variants after Delta and Omicron, and we may have to wait until the end of 2023 before the entire world’s population is fully vaccinated against the virus, based on WHO’s optimistic projection early this year, and we are not even talking about booster doses and other vaccine doses that may be required to counter any new variant!

It doesn’t matter if the new Omicron variant is an angel or devil, travel alerts have been issued by many countries worldwide, including Malaysia, while the six-month interval for a booster dose is now shortened to three months.

So far some 56 countries and territories around the world have imposed travel restrictions to stop Omicron. But are they overacting?

WHO said strict and full travel bans will inconvenience the travelers while not being effective in shutting out the virus. It has instead proposed pre-departure screening for travelers, and decide on quarantining inbound passengers only after comprehensive risk evaluation has been carried out in a bid to minimize the impact.

For the past one year we have worked so hard to put the virus somewhat under control, and have lifted all interstate travel bans and quarantine orders in a bid to restore commercial activities and school lessons while announcing that no more lockdowns will be enforced in future. However, all these happened before Omicron appeared.

We have less than two months before the next Chinese New Year. If Omicron happens to be a powerful devil (with high transmissibility and mortality), two months is long enough for the virus to create a massive turmoil across the planet. But if it is just an angel in disguise, then we should rest assured that the government will not issue a new ban for CNY celebration.

Hope we will not have another lockdown CNY celebrated alone in the city far away from home!




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