Just as countries have started reopening borders and moving towards a post-pandemic new normal, a new coronavirus variant was just detected in South Africa. Officially named B.1.1.529, this Omicron variant is already disrupting economies and forcing some nations to reimpose strict travel restrictions.
In a recent update, the World Health Organization said it is still unsure whether or not the new variant is more transmissible compared to the other variants, including Delta. “The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors,” the WHO reports.
Scientists and researchers in South Africa and around the world are now scrambling to conduct studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron. Preliminary data from WHO indicated that “there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those of other variants.”
Initial reported infections were among university students — younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease — but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks, added the WHO. It further warned that all variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.”
Since November 26, many countries including the US, Japan, and members of the European Union have announced a ban on the entry of foreigners from eight South African countries.
Vietnam, which is still reeling from the impacts of the fourth coronavirus wave, is now implementing proactive measures to prevent the spread of Omicron within its borders. Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in an official statement requested the Ministry of Health to keep a close watch on the pandemic situation caused by the new variant, frequently contact the WHO to get timely and precise updates, and propose timely and effective anti-pandemic plans.
The Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other relevant governmental organizations were also ordered to tighten control over people who have come to or transited the countries recording Omicron-related infections. As of November 29, Vietnam has recorded 1,224,110 COVID-19 infections, none of which was caused by the new variant.
Flights to and from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Lesotho and Mozambique have been temporarily halted by the Vietnamese government. Visas and travel permissions to people going to or arriving from these countries have also been suspended.
The new variant may hamper Vietnam’s reopening plans. The country had been piloting an inbound tourism program for foreign arrivals. Fully vaccinated travelers from select countries have been allowed to spend quarantine-free holidays in Phu Quoc, Khanh Hoa, Danang, Quang Nam and Quang Ninh since the start of November. The island of Phu Quoc welcomed its first foreign visitors — 204 South Korean nationals — in nearly two years. Danang and Quang Nam also saw the arrival of international tourists on November 17.
PM Chinh also initially announced that the country had planned to resume select international flights in early December. This could have been an important step towards a planned mid-2022 full reopening. However, these plans may be delayed by the emergence of Omicron.
The Vietnamese government said it will continue to strengthen its vaccination campaign. The country has so far inoculated 71 million people, with nearly 50 million fully vaccinated. The month of November saw the highest single daily vaccination rate of 1.58 million.
The WHO is still working to understand the potential of the new variant on the existing vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.
“Countries should continue to implement the effective public health measures to reduce COVID-19 circulation overall, using risk analysis and science-based approach. They should increase some public health and medical capacities to manage an increase in cases,” the organization said.
“The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 meter from others; wear a well-fitting mask, open windows to improve ventilation, avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces, keep hands clean, cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue, and get vaccinated when it’s their turn.”