WHO urges Asia-Pacific to ready for Omicron-driven surge in infections

FILE PHOTO: People wait in a line to undergo coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test at its testing site in central Seoul, South Korea, December 1, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

MANILA (Reuters) - Asia-Pacific countries should boost their healthcare capacity and fully vaccinate their people to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases fuelled by the Omicron variant, officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

First detected in southern Africa last month and dubbed a "variant of concern" by the WHO, scientists are still gathering data to establish how contagious Omicron is, and the severity of the illness it causes.

It has been reported in at least two dozen countries, and started gaining a foothold in Asia this week, with cases reported from Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and India. Many governments have responded by tightening travel rules.

"Border controls can buy time but every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases," Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the western Pacific, told a virtual media briefing.

"People should not only rely on border measures. What is most important is to prepare for these variants with potential high transmissibility. So far the information available suggests we don't have to change our approach," Kasai said.

Kasai said countries must utilise lessons learned from dealing with the Delta variant and urged them to fully vaccinate vulnerable groups and implement preventive measures such as mask wearing and social distancing rules.

Despite restrictions on international visitors, Australia became the latest country on Friday to report community transmission of Omicron, a day after it was found locally in five U.S. states.

(Reporting by Karen Lema and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Miyoung Kim & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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