Umrah suspension to continue for a month

by S BIRRUNTHA / pic by AFP

THE government is continuing with the Health Ministry’s (MoH) decision to suspend all umrah trips for one-month effective Jan 8.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar said this is to pave the way for a risk assessment process and analysis of several matters, particularly involving standard operating procedures (SOPs).

He said during the period of suspension, there will be discussions involving the cooperation of Saudi Arabia and the Malaysian Consulate.

The minister also noted that a risk evaluation within and outside the country, especially Saudi Arabia, will be carried out from time to time before umrah trips are allowed to resume.

“Give us the opportunity to tighten the SOPs of pilgrims from Malaysia, through discussions with Saudi Arabia, travel agencies, relevant ministries and consulates there.

“We will reopen the umrah journey more safely, but not now as there are rising cases of Covid-19 infection, especially the Omicron variant,” he said during a press conference in Parliament yesterday.

Last week, Khairy Jamaluddin announced that all umrah trips would be temporarily suspended from Jan 8 following fears and concerns over the high number of Omicron cases found among returnees from Makkah.

He also emphasised that pilgrims who have just returned from umrah are subject to quarantine at designated hotels or government quarantine centres.

The MoH and other relevant agencies would update the SOPs for umrah travellers, while booster vaccines will be mandatory for all pilgrims in the future.

Additionally, Khairy Jamaluddin said the authorities would conduct case management and contact tracing in Saudi Arabia as well as monitor the health status of Malaysian pilgrims.

He added that travel and tour agencies would be responsible with ensuring pilgrims comply with umrah SOPs, as well as to report positive cases and close contacts to the MoH.

A total of 245 Omicron cases have been reported in Malaysia and 157 or 64.08% of them involve umrah pilgrims.

He noted that of the total, 233 cases were imported while another 12 cases were local infections in Sarawak.

Seventeen of the 122 individuals confirmed to be infected with the variant as of Jan 4 were found to have no vaccination records.

The minister said his party was looking into the reasons behind the records where a handful of travellers from abroad did not have a history of taking the Covid-19 vaccine.

He explained that 17 individuals or 14% of those confirmed to be infected with the Variant of Concern involved 10 citizens and seven non-citizens.

“The imported countries of Omicron cases without vaccination records are from the UK involving four cases, Nigeria (four), the United Arab Emirates (four) and one case each from the US, Australia, Ghana, Ireland and Saudi Arabia.

“Here, we found that there is an issue of non-compliance with the SOPs because only those who have been vaccinated should be allowed to travel.

“However, it could be that they were not vaccinated due to medical conditions. We will look further into this matter,” he noted.

Explaining further, Khairy Jamaluddin expressed MoH’s concern that the daily Covid-19 infection will reach 30,000 cases if the ministry does not take any measures to contain the Omicron wave.

He added that the decision to temporarily postpone the umrah travel was among the measures that had to be considered to curb the spread of Omicron.

If the decision was not made, he said, the Covid-19 infection rate could soar to the level of 15,000 cases within 24 hours, for January and next month.

Nevertheless, Khairy Jamaluddin said measures to contain Omicron, as well as the Covid-19 infection will be based on effective and non-excessive methods, as opposed to the implementation of movement restrictions or “lockdowns”.

He stressed that implementing the method of movement restrictions, lockdowns and curfew orders will only push the country backwards.

In this regard, he said, the MoH will coordinate all measures to contain and control the epidemic through a more inclusive approach.

On another note, the Drug Control Authority (DCA) meeting yesterday agreed to grant conditional registration approval for two Comirnaty vaccine products for immunisation of children and adolescents against Covid-19.

Health DG Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said this was for Comirnaty 10mcg Concentrate for Dispersion for Injection and Comirnaty (Tris/Sucrose) 30mcg Solution for Injection.

He said the former is a Comirnaty vaccine approved for Covid-19 immunisation to children aged five to 11 years, adding that the vaccine has a lower potency than the Comirnaty vaccine given to individuals aged 12 and above.

“Comirnaty (Tris/Sucrose) 30mcg Solution for Injection is a Comirnaty vaccine with a new formulation that does not require dilution before injection and has a longer shelf life, which is 10 weeks compared to the existing formulation (one month) when stored at 2oC to 8oC after thawing.

“The indication of Comirnaty (Tris/Sucrose) 30mcg Solution for Injection is for Covid-19 immunisation to individuals aged 12 years and above,” he said in a statement yesterday.

The registration holder for the two Comirnaty vaccines was Pfizer (M) Sdn Bhd and it was manufactured by BioNTech Manufacturing GmbH, Germany.

At the same time, he said, the DCA also gave conditional approval for the use of Convidecia® Recombinant Novel Coronavirus Vaccine (Adenovirus Type 5 Vector) Solution for Injection as a booster dose to individuals aged 18 and above with an interval of three to six months after receiving the first dose of the same vaccine.

The registration holder for the vaccine was Solution Biologics Sdn Bhd and it was manufactured by CanSino Biologics Inc, China.

“This conditional registration approval still requires information on the quality, safety and effectiveness of the vaccine product to be monitored and evaluated on an ongoing basis by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Division, based on the latest data.

“It is to ensure that the comparison of benefit over risk for the vaccines remains positive,” he said.

On booster dose, Khairy Jamaluddin said four integrated vaccination centres (PPVs) with larger capacity will start operating in the Klang Valley starting Jan 15 to increase the booster dose vaccination capacity.

These PPVs are the World Trade Centre Kuala Lumpur, Axiata Arena Bukit Jalil, IDCC Shah Alam and Soka Gakkai, Klang.

“This will increase the administration of booster doses in the Klang Valley and we will keep expanding if there is a similar need in other big cities,” he noted.