More information about Omicron needed to decide if COVID-19 protocols need to be changed

SINGAPORE – The new coronavirus variant Omicron has put the world in a state of high alert, but two experts The Straits Times spoke with on Saturday (Nov 27) say more information is needed to determine if current pandemic protocols should change.

For instance, it is not yet clear if current vaccines can protect a person from falling ill after being infected by the Omicron variant, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

Other things to monitor would be how fast this new variant spreads, and whether those infected with it would suffer a more severe form of Covid-19.

Said Prof Teo: “If the variant increases transmissibility, but does not increase the risk of disease and death beyond what is already observed in the Delta variant, then the impact on the healthcare system is not that large if countries are able to ensure a high uptake of vaccination and vaccine boosters.”

But he noted that if there is clear evidence that Omicron does increase the risk of disease and death even for the vaccinated, then countries will need to review the relevance of endemic Covid-19 strategies.

“At the moment, it is still too early to determine whether the outlook is going to be pessimistic or optimistic,” he said.

Professor Hsu Li Yang, who is vice dean of global health and programme leader of Infectious Diseases at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said the worst case scenario is that the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the Delta variant, and that it can also completely evade the immune response triggered by past infection or vaccination.

If this happens, Singapore would have to abandon its approach to treating Covid-19 as an endemic disease, until new vaccines become available.

He added: “But I think this scenario is very unlikely, given that it is not a completely new virus.”

The new variant was first detected in Gauteng, a province of South Africa, on Thursday (Nov 25).

It was declared a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organisation on Friday (Nov 26), because of the large number of mutations detected in its spike protein, which may cause an increase risk of reinfection, amongst other negative effects. The spike protein is what the coronavirus uses to begin infecting human cells.

It is the fifth variant of concern that has emerged since the pandemic first gripped the world almost two years ago. The Delta variant was declared a variant of concern in May 2020.

To curb Omicron infections, nations around the world have moved quickly to stop global transmission of the variant, ceasing flights from many countries in the continent.

On Friday (Nov 26), Singapore’s Ministry of Health announced that all travellers with recent travel history from seven countries in Africa, including South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, will be barred from enterring Singapore from 11.59pm on Saturday (Nov 27).

On the same Friday, the Republic also announced six new quarantine-free travel schemes with countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, and that these would begin next month. By the end of December, Singapore would have 27 active Vaccination Travel Lane (VTL) schemes.

Of the 27, Omicron has been detected in only one such country – the Netherlands.

Asked if the variant could affect the established VTLs, Prof Teo said it depends on factors such as the virus’ incubation period – which refers to the number of days between when a person is infected with the virus and when symptoms start to show – and the length of the infectious period.

He explained: “This will help to determine whether the existing testing requirements for travellers on the VTLs will result in a higher rate of leakage.”

Current border protocols have kept this leakage – referring to the number of travellers infected with Covid-19 – at one infected per thousand travellers, he said.

Both experts say that country-specific border restrictions merely delay the arrival of the variant into Singapore.

Prof Hsu said: ” It is highly likely that the Omicron variant is already present and circulating in other non-African countries that have direct flight connections with Africa and Singapore.”

He noted that in one case of Omicron infection in Belgium, the patient had never set foot in South Africa nor the other seven countries commonly listed in the new travel bans.

Prof Hsu added: “Therefore – unless the situation changes – we are likely to have persons infected by this new variant on our shores within a matter of weeks.”

Disclaimer :- This story has not been edited by The Sen Times staff and The Straits Times writer Gena Soh contributed to this report.