Contain Omicron with proactive measures, not lockdowns

by S BIRRUNTHA / pic by TMR FILE 

MORE proactive and intensive measures are needed to curb the spread of the Omicron variant which reached Malaysia’s shores last week, experts said.

Osel Group chief clinical and innovative scientist Dr Kris See said while Malaysia should remain vigilant, intense research into the new Covid-19 variant first identified in Southern Africa has just begun.

He said presently getting fully vaccinated and adhering to public health measures are still our best bet to combat Omicron.

“I do not think lockdowns are effective anymore. Malaysia, with efforts from public and private initiatives, boasts one of the highest vaccinated nations in the world.

“It is also becoming a norm now for people to live with public health measures. I think we are in a good state to face the evolving situation.

“In line with this, the government should also consider beefing up strict border control,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

Dr See noted that the World Health Organisation has called Omicron a “variant of concern” and warned that the global risks posed by it were “very high”, despite what officials described as a multitude of uncertainties.

He also emphasised that this new iteration of the Covid-19 virus has prompted concern among scientists and public health officials because of an unusually high number of mutations with the potential to make the virus more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines.

“Omicron has already reached Malaysia. Thanks to the efforts of our South African counterparts, we detected this new variant.

“However, to detect further cases of the variant, the virus needed to undergo state-of-art genomic sequencing. In Malaysia, viral genomic sequencing is still at its infancy. So, I would not be surprised if many Omicron cases would go undetected,” he added.

Meanwhile, Putra Business School Assoc Prof Dr Ahmed Razman Abdul Latiff told TMR that there is a possibility that the government will introduce fresh curbs to contain the Omicron variant.

He said this is especially true as some countries have implemented measures to prevent the entry of individuals from countries with Omicron infections.

However, Ahmed Razman opined that the government will not impose another lockdown as Malaysia already has an almost 100% vaccination rate among the adult population.

“I think most likely, our government will review the approval to bring in foreign labour from certain countries that have confirmed Omicron cases.

“It is also possible that we might go through a more aggressive campaign of booster vaccination, especially if it is proven that an additional shot can lessen the severity of an Omicron infection,” he noted.

From an economist’s point of view, Centre for Market Education CEO Dr Carmelo Ferlito hopes that the government would resist the temptation to adopt unnecessary policy for the sake of showing a strong hand in doing something.

He stressed that the government should avoid both alarmism and denial tendencies, and follow the Omicron situation closely.

“For example, the South African doctors who are treating the first patients affected by Omicron said that the patients are in good condition and they only have mild symptoms.

“Therefore, I believe that we should not look at infection rate (like we have mistakenly done so far), but at how dangerous the variant is in terms of mortality,” TMR was told.

Nevertheless, Ferlito stressed that lockdowns will not be the solution for the containment of the new variant, as the inflation and supply-chain disruptions that the world is experiencing are due to the implementation of multiple lockdowns.

He added that the government should look into strengthening the country’s healthcare system, rather than introducing curbs that in turn force higher expenditure in subsidies and disrupt the economy, as can be seen now with world data on prices and employment.

“I think the best option is to invest in medical facilities, which means hardware as well as manpower, in particular nurses.

“We should also invest in medical research for an effective cure or treatment beyond vaccines, which seem not to be that silver bullet we were hoping for.”

Malaysia reported its first Omicron variant case on Dec 3, involving a 19-year-old South African student who entered the country on Nov 19 via the Kuala Lumpur International Airport from Singapore.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar said the individual had received two doses of Pfizer vaccines on Sept 29 before returning home to South Africa to visit her family.

He noted that the student completed her 10-day quarantine period, and all her close contacts had been tested and found to be negative.

Following the discovery, Khairy announced several control measures, including fitting digital tracking devices on people returning from high-risk countries during the home quarantine period.

He said the travel ban imposed on eight countries — namely South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Malawi — would also remain.

Additionally, tourists visiting Langkawi must undergo additional screening on the third and fifth day from their date of arrival as a precautionary measure.