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Next few weeks will tell, virologist says on impact of Omicron subvariants in Malaysia

Dr Muhammad Amir Yunus says efforts should be made to prevent any sudden increase in Covid-19 cases.

Azzman Abdul Jamal
2 minute read
Crowds gather to cross the road at a major junction in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, on New Year’s Eve on Dec 31, 2022.
Crowds gather to cross the road at a major junction in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, on New Year’s Eve on Dec 31, 2022.

The next few weeks will be a crucial period for the health ministry to determine the impact of the BA.5.2 and BF.7 Omicron variants recently detected in the country, a virologist says. 

Dr Muhammad Amir Yunus, of USM's Advanced Medical & Dental Institute, said it was still too early to label the situation as a matter of concern. 

However, he urged the health ministry to focus on the issue to prevent a spike in Covid-19 infections in the country. 

BA.5.2 and BF.7 are the dominant variants in China, accounting for some 80% of the cases in the republic. 

Their presence in the country triggered concern ahead of China's move to end the travel restrictions imposed at the onset of the pandemic three years ago. 

Amir said Malaysia's concerns were in line with those of other countries which feared a resurgence of Covid-19 cases. 

"It's understandable," he added, citing a recent report which said that half of the passengers on two flights from China to Italy had tested positive for the virus. 

China's abrupt U-turn on its strict "zero-Covid" policy was followed by a surge of infections, leading to calls in Malaysia for the government to restrict the entry of tourists from the republic amid fears of a similar virus spike in the country. 

Many also said that they could not face the prospect of another lockdown such as the movement control orders imposed throughout the first two years of the pandemic. 

Amir said while it was unreasonable to implement restrictions on movements at this juncture, such measures could not be entirely ruled out.

He said this would depend on the spread of Covid-19 in Malaysia as well as the stability of the healthcare system. 

"I am confident that the health ministry has threshold indicators with which to monitor the situation," he said. 

"Only if large numbers of patients are admitted to ICU with breathing difficulties will we have cause for concern. Then we can begin to talk about whether to impose a lockdown or not." 

Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa had encouraged Malaysians to go for a second booster shot of Covid-19 vaccine following the spread of Covid-19 in China. 

She said only 1.9% of Malaysians had received a second booster jab while 49.8% had been given one. 

Amir said it was possible that many did not view the current vaccines as effective in the fight against the Omicron variant. 

"Basically, these two variants are of the Omicron subvariant, and cause more or less the same reactions.

"Research has shown that the present vaccines are not as effective against this variant. This may be why not many are keen on getting another booster jab," he said. 

Nevertheless, he said the government should continue to take advantage of the remaining vaccine supply so that it does not go to waste. 

"It will be difficult to control the epidemic itself or the movement of infectious disease agents," he said. 

"We need to take proactive steps such as screening, to prevent any sudden increase in Covid-19 infections over the next few months."