Saturday, January 22, 2022

Vaccination, SOPs enough for now to tackle Omicron, say health experts

Much is still unknown about the latest variant of Covid-19 although Malaysians are warned to prepare for all possibilities.

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The Omicron variant of Covid-19 which set off alarm bells across the globe following its detection in more than 23 countries can still be kept in check in the country if vaccination efforts are stepped up and SOPs are followed, health experts say.

Clinical biochemist Dr Salvatore Chirumbolo added that so far, the variant does not seem significantly more dangerous in terms of morbidity.

“It is highly contagious but only causes mild forms of Covid-19, usually addressed by home therapy without the need for hospitalisation,” Chirumbolo, from the University of Verona in Italy, told MalaysiaNow.

The Omicron variant was first spotted by South African scientists a week ago. Since then, a number of countries including Malaysia have suspended or limited travel from the region in a bid to limit the spread of infection.

Even so, Malaysia recorded its first Omicron case in an international student at a private university in Ipoh, Perak, who was confirmed to have the variant after arriving from South Africa through Singapore on Nov 19.

Health experts have voiced concern over the strain whose many mutations have given rise to theories that it could be more transmissible or resistant to vaccines.

In Malaysia, plans to transition to the endemic phase of so-called living with Covid-19 were put on hold pending further details on the new variant.

End-year celebrations and travel plans have added to concern about the risk of Omicron spreading to the country, especially with the Sarawak state election just around the corner.

Zainal Ariffin Omar, president of the Malaysian Public Health Physicians’ Association, said more information is needed on the clinical characteristics of the variant.

However, he said the ban imposed on travellers from high-risk countries was a proactive step which showed caution on the part of the government.

“I see no need for another lockdown in the near future,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“For now, the SOPs and vaccinations are still enough to deal with the matter.”

However, he advised people to avoid congested areas and overseas travel, and to take their booster shots.

Virologist Dr Yahya Mat Arip said Omicron possesses 50 mutations, making it more dangerous than the predominant Delta strain.

“The number of mutations in itself does not mean it is more dangerous,” he said. “It is the mutations in the spike protein structure that are of concern.”

For Delta, he said, there are about 10 mutations in the spike protein.

“But it is not necessarily the case that such mutations will cause the strain to be more dangerous,” he added.

“Right now we have no data yet showing that Omicron can cause more severe illness or evade the existing vaccines.”

He, too, agreed that the time for full lockdowns had passed as the country could no longer withstand the economic impact of another closure.

“We must depend on preventive SOPs and vaccines,” he said. “Unfortunately, though, SOP compliance is declining by the day.”

The same goes for booster shots, Yahya said.

“Again, it is unfortunate that more than 40% of appointments are not kept.”

Chirumbolo, who is also against another lockdown, said the government’s approach should change from checking all contacts to those who are symptomatic.

Dr Lam Sai Kit, a senior fellow at the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, previously urged Malaysia to join global efforts to share the genome sequencing of new variants with public databases like Gisaid, and to report the detection of new strains to the World Health Organization.

“We do not know the disease severity of Omicron, and whether the current diagnostic procedures using PCR and rapid antigen tests will still work well,” the prominent virologist said.

“In the next few weeks, more will be known about the Omicron variant, and we can then adjust our response accordingly.”

In the meantime, he added, Malaysia and the rest of the world should prepare for a worst-case scenario.

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