Much of Asia has largely managed to keep omicron at bay even as the variant rages in other parts of the world, but the region that is home to most of the globe’s population is bracing for what may be an inevitable surge.
Strict quarantine rules for arrivals and widespread mask wearing have helped slow the spread of the highly contagious variant in Asia. Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand quickly reinstated entry and quarantine restrictions in recent weeks after relaxing them in the fall.
But cases are mounting, and experts say the next few months will be critical. Those fears have been amplified by doubts about the effectiveness of the Chinese-made vaccines used in China and much of the developing world.
Japan managed to delay the spread of the new variant for about a month largely thanks to its reimposition of entry restrictions, mandatory COVID-19 tests for all arrivals and the isolation of all passengers on a flight if anyone tested positive for omicron.
But the barrier was broken last week when the first locally transmitted cases were confirmed in the neighboring cities of Osaka and Kyoto. Experts are urging the government to prepare for an imminent wave of infections by increasing testing, speeding up booster shots and preparing more beds at hospitals.
“We want to believe the omicron cases could be mild, but its fast-paced infections could quickly multiply the number of patients and could still overwhelm hospitals,” Omi said.
Taiwan, where wearing a face mask is near universal in major cities, has started to offer booster shots of the Moderna vaccine and is urging people get a third shot before an expected influx of people returning home for Lunar New Year at the end of January.
Preliminary research has shown that booster shots of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines offer continued, though diminished, protection against omicron.
However, a Hong Kong University study that has yet to be published found that China’s widely used Sinovac vaccine does not generate enough antibodies to protect against omicron, even with a booster shot, according to a university news release. Hong Kong offers both the Sinovac and Pfizer vaccines.
Sinovac did not respond to a request for comment. Chinese officials have said their vaccines are still effective.
“Our inactivated vaccines are still rather reliable and cover a range of antigens. Therefore, they won’t be completely ineffective against omicron,” Zhong Nanshan, a top government doctor, said at a public forum.
Southeast Asian countries are moving to administer coronavirus vaccine boosters as quickly as possible before the omicron variant reverses their progress on keeping infection rates in check.
With Omicron cases currently making up around 17 per cent of local COVID-19 infections in Singapore, a wave of the variant is “imminent” and the country must be prepared for it.
Omicron cases have started to “creep up”, making up around 17 per cent of local cases currently.
“This means an Omicron wave is imminent, and we need to be prepared for it,” said the Health Minister, adding that vaccination and boosters remain the key response.
The Thai government predicted the highly infectious omicron variant of COVID-19 would at least quadruple the kingdom’s daily confirmed cases by late January, making a quick recovery of the country’s vital tourism industry unlikely.
The Ministry of Public Health came up with three scenarios for omicron outbreaks in Thailand on Monday. In the best case, Thailand would see 10,000 cases per day, with 60 to 70 fatalities, by late January.
According to Kiattiphum Wongrajit, the ministry’s permanent secretary, Thailand must accelerate vaccinations to achieve that scenario. As of Dec. 23, 64.1% of the country’s eligible residents had been vaccinated twice, while another 8.5% have received one shot. Booster shots have been administered gradually since late September.
People must comply with universal prevention measures, such as wearing face masks at all times in public and maintaining social distancing. All sectors must encourage vaccinations and testing to maintain a COVID-free environment, Kiattiphum said on Monday. Those who have had close contact with an infected person, and those with respiratory symptoms, should promptly take an antigen test, he said.
Thailand reported 2,305 new cases on Tuesday. The ministry’s forecasts suggest that even the best-case scenario means omicron would increase the country’s daily caseload more than fourfold. The Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration, the government body charged with formulating COVID-19 policies, said the country has so far detected 504 cases of the omicron variant, up from 104 cases as of Wednesday.
Two-thirds of the new variant cases were detected in arrivals from overseas, while the rest were from those in close contact with infected individuals, the center said. A large majority of patients, 90%, exhibited mild symptoms or none, the ministry said.
The Public Health Ministry’s second-best scenario, which projects 15,000 to 16,000 cases per day, is based mostly on the same conditions as the best-case scenario, but without faster vaccinations. Thailand may have 30,000 new cases per day, with 170 to 180 fatalities, in the worst-case scenario, if residents become complacent about preventive measures.
The global spread of the new variant prompted the government on Wednesday to stop accepting new applications for its quarantine-free entry program. The program, which was launched in November, exempted vaccinated tourists from 63 countries from quarantine requirements. The program was seen as key to a quick economic recovery in Thailand, as tourism and related businesses accounted for 20% of the country’s gross domestic product in pre-COVID times.
here is a high possibility of an Omicron wave starting in Malaysia, such as seen in other countries around the world currently, says Khairy Jamaluddin.
The Health Minister said that extensive booster dose coverage, wearing face masks, good ventilation, implementing TRIIS (Test, Report, Isolate, Inform and Seek), activating the MySejahtera Trace system and international gateway control were among the measures to slow the transmission of the highly infectious Covid-19 variant.
Although some argued that Omicron was less severe than the Delta variant, Khairy said Omicron was indeed more infectious than Delta and would still put a strain on the health system and facilities if transmissions increase.
The Health Ministry wants to avoid crippling the public health system. “Strategy: slow down Omicron,” he said in a series of tweets on Sunday.
Vietnam on Monday recorded 15,916 local Covid-19 cases, plus four imported cases with the Omicron variant.
The four new Omicron cases were recorded in Hai Duong and Hai Phong in northern Vietnam and the north central province of Thanh Hoa. Vietnam has recorded 24 Covid-19 cases with the Omicron variant so far, including one in Hanoi, five in HCMC, and 14 in the central province of Quang Nam, all imported cases.The total infection tally in the new wave so far is 1,772,257 cases.
The three localities with the highest numbers of new local cases on Monday are Hanoi with 2,100 cases, Hai Phong with 1,749 cases and Tay Ninh with 919 cases.
China’s attitude toward the virus, omicron or not, is to stop transmission in its tracks, and the country appears to be getting even tougher with the approach of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.
Officials locked down the city of Xi’an, a city and administrative area of 13 million people last week, amid a delta outbreak that has infected hundreds of people. On Monday, they ordered everyone to stay at home until another citywide round of testing was completed.
Residents complained on social media about the sudden ban. Many were relying on instant noodles and other packaged food. Some worried how they would get enough food in the coming days, especially fresh vegetables.
China quarantines those arriving from abroad for weeks, depending on the province, with three weeks being the most common.
How China’s zero-COVID-19 policy will play out at the Olympics is a major question. Athletes and visitors will not be allowed to leave the Olympic zones, and those attending such as officials, journalists and venue staff will be tested every day.
To contain a deadly delta-driven surge in South Korea, the government this month restored its toughest distancing rules with a four-person limit on private gatherings and a 9 p.m. curfew on restaurants.
Health experts predict it’s only a matter of time before omicron comes.
“Omicron has such a high transmission rate that it’s too obvious that it’ll become the dominant variant in South Korea at some point,” said Jaehun Jung, a professor at Gachon University College of Medicine in South Korea.