PETALING JAYA: From Australia to Zambia, the Omicron Covid-19 variant has been detected in at least 60 countries and regions worldwide so far, with more than 20 reporting local community transmissions.
An analysis of news reports on the affected countries shows the rapid spread of Omicron within the short span of just two weeks of the variant being classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Nov 26.
On Dec 7, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky said more than 50 countries have detected the variant since its discovery in South Africa last month.
Malaysia has also not been spared with the country's first case reported on Dec 2, involving a 19-year-old South African private university student in Ipoh who arrived from South Africa through Singapore on Nov 19.
The following are some of the key information points about the variant, its spread and the advice of local experts on how Malaysia can best manage the spread of the variant.
The new B.1.1.529 strain of the coronavirus, first detected in South Africa on Nov 9, was classified a variant of concern (VOC) by the World Health Organisation on Nov 26.
Health experts cautioned that the variant could have already spread to many countries and its local community, including Malaysia, before South Africa first reported the variant to WHO on Nov 24.
“As announced by the Health Ministry, the first imported case of the Omicron variant was someone who entered Malaysia on Nov 19, so there is always the possibility that more cases caused by the Omicron variant may have entered Malaysia before Nov 24,” said Universiti Malaya (UM) epidemiologist Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud.
“It is clear however, that the number of cases caused by the Omicron variant in the community in the United Kingdom is increasing rapidly,” he said.
Britain first reported the Omicron variant on Nov 27 from two individuals with a history of travel to southern Africa.
The country now has 568 Omicron cases in several areas, with several people having no links to international travel.
Denmark has also seen a sharp increase in Omicron variant in the community with a total of 577 cases, while South Africa has 429 cases according to an open-source tracker by Newsnodes and BNO News.
Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Dr Koh Kar Chai said the Omicron variant with its high transmissibility could soon become the world’s dominant variant.
With Omicron already being detected in the country, Dr Koh said it is likely the variant will spread in the community.
“Scientists are now trying to determine how effective vaccines are against the variant.
“If the vaccines offer a high level of protection, we should be in a good position against the variant as we have achieved a high vaccination rate,” he said.
Dr Koh urged people to get the maximum protection available against Covid-19.
“Our elderly should get their booster shots if they are eligible and the general population will need to consistently adhere to the prescribed standard operating procedure (SOP),” he said.
On Dec 8, Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said existing vaccines can protect those infected with the Omicron variant from severe Covid-19 cases, following South Africa’s first lab test on the variant.
Universiti Putra Malaysia medical epidemiologist Assoc Prof Dr Malina Osman said the extent of Omicron’s transmission worldwide will depend on travel patterns as well as countries’ regulations on international border closure.
“If during this period, strict travelling regulation and screenings are followed, I guess the extension of spread may be confined to certain high-risk areas,” she said.
Dr Malina said she believes the spread of the Omicron variant into the community can still be contained through strict adherence to the SOP and continuous monitoring of the country’s international entry points.
To better understand the characteristics of the variant, UM’s Dr Awang Bulgiba said it is important for countries to conduct genomic surveillance, coupled with epidemiological analysis.
He said a quick way to identify the Omicron variant is through an RT-PCR test by American company Thermo Fisher, which can show an S gene dropout or S gene target failure (SGTF), which has been used to identify the Alpha variant.
“Previously this was a quick way of identifying the Alpha variant but as the Alpha variant has been almost completely displaced by the Delta variant, the SGTF can be used to make presumptive identification of the Omicron variant,” he said, adding that the samples can then be prioritised and sent for genome sequencing for confirmation.
Dr Awang Bulgiba added that vaccination and non-pharmaceutical interventions remain critical in protecting ourselves against Covid-19.