The Ministry of Health in Vietnam confirmed Monday that an Omicron BA.5 subvariant had been detected in the country. Health officials have yet to reveal more specific information, but the ministry said the emergence of new strains was inevitable after the full border reopening.
Concerned that this case may lead to a surge in infections, Ho Chi Minh City health authorities on Thursday told district officials to get ready to reactivate treatment facilities.
“The number of COVID-19 cases in the country may rise in the coming time,” warned Tang Chi Thuong, HCMC Department of Health director.
If the BA.5 subvariant appears in the city, cases are forecast to soar in Binh Tan District, Binh Chanh District, Binh Thanh District, District 12, Tan Phu District, Nha Be District, Go Vap District, District 4, District 6, and Thu Duc City, a report by Tuoi Tre News read. These ten localities currently have the lowest vaccination rates in terms of booster shots.
BA.5 and another emerging subvariant BA.4, currently make up 55% of global samples. In its latest update, the World Health Organization said that COVID-19 cases jumped 18% last week and are “at their highest levels since April.” The surge can be attributed to the new subvariants.
“Comparing the proportion of Omicron sequences submitted during epidemiological weeks 23 (6 to 12 June) and 24, BA.2 declined from 30% to 25%, BA.2.12.1 declined from 18% to 11%, while BA.4 increased from 9% to 12% and BA.5 increased from 28% to 43%,” WHO reported.
About 4.1 million cases were reported last week, but WHO said the numbers could be higher, given reduced testing in many countries. Most of the new infections were detected in the Eastern Mediterranean (+47%), Europe (+33%), Southeast Asia (+32%), and the Americas (+14%).
In Vietnam, the cases have been in steady decline since the beginning of June. Wearing of masks isn’t strictly monitored anymore. However, with the country scrapping COVID-19 testing for all inbound travelers, the cases could be more than what’s publicly reported.
WHO is still assessing if the new variants alter transmission and disease characteristics or impact the effectiveness of vaccines, but international medical experts said BA.5 appears to be less dangerous. The new variant is more likely to infect the upper respiratory tract than the lungs, causing fewer deaths than earlier in the pandemic, when the lungs were more impacted.
Vaccine still the most effective preventive measure
The Ministry of Health reiterated the importance of vaccines in preventing the further spread of COVID infections.
Latest data show that 77.8 million, or 80.7% of Vietnam’s total population, have been fully vaccinated. Nearly 61 million have gotten their third dose. Health authorities are currently pushing for citizens to get the fourth dose.
In Ho Chi Minh City, a city of nine million people, about 21.4 million vaccine doses have been administered since the beginning of the mass vaccination drive in March 2021.
According to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Do Van Dung, similar to the previous Omicron subvariants, BA.5 can evade the vaccine partially. However, the vaccine effectively reduces the severity and mortality of people infected with BA.5.
“Elderly people or people with underlying medical conditions need to get the fourth dose (second booster) four months after their third dose,” the medical expert added.