‘Be alert against new variant’


PETALING JAYA: Proactive and preventive measures against Covid-19 need to be heightened to prevent a new threat from the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant, say health experts.

The new coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa on Nov 9, was classified as a variant of concern (VOC) by the World Health Organisation on Friday.

With countries around the world rushing to contain the Omicron variant, Singapore has announced that Malaysians using the land Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) to get to the republic from today must take an Antigen Rapid Test upon arrival.

Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Dr Koh Kar Chai said Malaysia should be cautious with the new variant which has already been detected in Europe and Asia.

He said early evidence suggested that the Omicron variant had a higher reinfection risk.

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“Experts have already expressed concern that Omicron’s large number of mutations may help it spread or even enable it to evade antibodies from prior infections or vaccination,” he said, adding that Malaysians needed to be on alert as all economic sectors had reopened.

With the latest variant threat, Dr Koh urged Malaysians to strictly adhere to the SOP even after full vaccination and booster shots.

“We also advise the remaining population who are unvaccinated to get their jabs as soon as possible if they are eligible as it will prevent severe Covid-19.

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“All available evidence-based preventive measures against Covid-19 should be taken. Regardless of the variant, the public should not let its guard down,” he said.

Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud said Malaysia should safeguard its borders as there was reason to be extra cautious of the Omicron variant.

“This is possibly the shortest time between detection of a variant and its designation as a VOC,” he said, pointing to the period between Nov 9 and when it was reported to WHO on Nov 24.

Dr Awang Bulgiba, however, said time would determine whether the new VOC was more lethal than the earlier ones.

“We need to increase our genomic surveillance and sequencing combined with thorough epidemiological analysis to make sure we do not miss any Omicron infections,” he said, adding that the Omicron variant could be quickly identified through a PCR test, where there is an S gene dropout.

He said by using the PCR test, samples could then be prioritised in order to be sent for genome sequencing.

“It takes time but this is needed for confirmation,” he said.

Dr Awang Bulgiba said due to the potential immune escape for the particular VOC, vaccine manufacturers were investigating whether their vaccines require updating.

He said Novavax was already working on a newer version of its vaccine with Omicron in mind, while Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson were examining whether their vaccines needed updating.

He said AstraZeneca had months earlier worked on a newer updated version of its vaccine (AZD2816) which targeted the Beta variant.

“AstraZeneca has stated that they are working to see if their current vaccine and its new long-acting antibody cocktail (AZD7442) work against the Omicron variant.

“As the Omicron variant shares some of the same mutations of the Beta variant, it would probably not take very long for the company to modify the AZD2816 to work against the Omicron variant, if indeed there is a need to do so,” he said.

In safeguarding the country from the potential spread of the variant, Dr Awang Bulgiba advised that vaccination for schoolchildren, as well as the booster programme, need to be completed quickly to achieve optimal immunity in the population.

Universiti Putra Malaysia medical epidemiologist Assoc Prof Dr Malina Osman said preliminary findings showed that the new variant’s protein differed significantly from that used to develop vaccines against Covid-19 infection.

She said current measures of the Health Ministry were sufficient but the public must continuously adhere to the SOP.

“The travel ban on the affected countries should continue until specific clinical impact is known,” said Dr Malina.

The ministry had on Friday announced that Malaysians had been banned from travelling to seven African countries following the emergence of the new variant.

Foreigners with a history of travel to South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe over the past 14 days would not be allowed to enter Malaysia.

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