Nowhere to hide: Omicron variant of COVID-19 widens its reach, Singapore and Malaysia report first cases

The heavily mutated variant is setting alarm bells across nations and spreading at a rapid pace, forcing nations to impose new travel curbs and stricter restrictions on their citizenry

FP Staff December 03, 2021 12:45:45 IST
Nowhere to hide: Omicron variant of COVID-19 widens its reach, Singapore and Malaysia report first cases

A passenger wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) queues to check-in for a flight at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang. AFP

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus disease, deemed highly contagious and capable of undergoing frequent mutations, has made its way from South Africa to Europe and to parts of Asia.

The heavily mutated Omicron variant is setting alarm bells across nations and spreading at a rapid pace, forcing nations to impose new travel curbs and stricter restrictions on their citizenry.

Shortly after announcing that India had detected two cases of the COVID-19 variant to Karnataka, officials of the health ministry said that 30 nations had reported 375 instances of the Omicron variant.

Here’s a look at how the Omicron variant is spreading across the world.

United States

America, which had no cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, till before this week, has now reported at least eight cases.

On Thursday, California confirmed that the first case of the Omicron variant had been detected in a fully vaccinated traveller who had recently returned from South Africa.

Health authorities in the midwestern US state of Minnesota announced they had found another case of the Omicron coronavirus variant on American soil, this time in a man with no known recent international travel history.

Like the first identified US case in California, the patient was vaccinated and had mild symptoms from which he has now recovered.

Additionally, the state of New York also confirmed five cases of the coronavirus Omicron variant. The infected New Yorkers included a 67-year-old woman on Long Island who had recently travelled to South Africa, residents of Brooklyn and Queens and another case possibly linked to travel. At least one person had received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine but officials did not have details about the vaccination status of the four other cases.

Sri Lanka

A Sri Lankan who had returned from Nigeria on 23 November, has tested positive for COVID-19's new variant Omicron.
This was confirmed by Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella.

Deputy Director-General of Public Health Services in a special statement on Friday that the first case was detected on Friday morning following tests carried out by Sri Lankan laboratories.

“We have taken measures to contain the spread and there is no need to panic and the health officials have taken swift action following this discovery,” he said.

Australia

On Friday morning, Australia confirmed its first locally transmitted Omicron case. Officials said that a student with no history of foreign travel had tested positive for the Covid-19 Omicron variant.

The case, detected in the country's largest city Sydney, comes despite a ban on non-citizens entering the country and restrictions on flights from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected.

Australia has detected nine other Omicron cases, but all were detected in incoming travellers.

South Korea

South Korea on Wednesday confirmed its first five cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant in people linked to arrivals from Nigeria, prompting the government to tighten the country's borders.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said the cases include a couple who arrived from Nigeria on 24 November and a friend who drove them home from the airport. The two other cases were women who also travelled to Nigeria and returned to South Korea on 23 November.

The Associated Press reported that following the confirmation of the omicron infections, South Korea announced it will require all passengers arriving from abroad over the next two weeks to quarantine for at least 10 days, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status.

The country had already banned short-term foreign travelers arriving from eight southern African nations, including South Africa, starting Sunday to fend off omicron, which is seen as potentially more infectious than other versions of the virus. Officials say the same rules will now be extended to foreigners coming from Nigeria.

Singapore

Two travellers from South Africa have tested "preliminarily positive" for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 after landing in Singapore.

Singapore's ministry of health said that there was no evidence of any community transmission from these cases.
The two travellers, who arrived from Johannesburg, are recovering in isolation wards at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID). Both of them are fully vaccinated and have "mild symptoms of cough and scratchy throat", it said.

One is a 44-year-old Singapore permanent resident who arrived in the city-state from Mozambique, transiting through Johannesburg. His pre-departure test in Mozambique on 29 November was negative for COVID-19, said Singapore’s ministry of health.

The other case is a 41-year-old Singaporean woman who arrived from South Africa. Her pre-departure test in Johannesburg on 29 November was negative for COVID-19.

Malaysia

Malaysia said on Friday it has detected its first case of the new Omicron strain of the coronavirus in a foreign student who returned to the country last month after visiting her family in South Africa.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said the 19-year-old female transited in Singapore and arrived in Malaysia on 19 November, where she underwent a COVID-19 test upon arrival. She was then bussed to her university lodging in northern Perak state with four others and placed under quarantine, he said.

Results the next day confirmed the student was positive for COVID-19, he said. The bus driver and four others in the vehicle tested negative and were all quarantined, he added.

Other countries

Other than these, The Netherlands (16 cases), Israel (two cases), the United Kingdom (32 cases), Germany (10 cases), Italy (four cases), Japan (two cases), Saudi Arabia (one case) and many more have also reported the Omicron variant.

South Africa, where the variant was first detected, is also seeing a steep surge in infections in South Africa but relatively few people are being hospitalised, experts said. The country recorded 11,535 new cases Thursday, mostly in the epicentre Gauteng, the province home to the biggest city Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria. That's five times as many cases as were reported just one week ago when South African scientists alerted the world to the new variant. Three-quarters of new cases in South Africa are now Omicron.

What has WHO said?
In response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, World Health Organization officials said that every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases.

When asked what needs to be done, WHO's Regional Emergency Director Dr Babatunde Olowokure said, "In terms of what countries should be doing now, our experiences over the last few years, especially in responding to Delta, provides a guide of what we need to do, as well as how to cope with future surges in a more sustainable way."

These include full vaccination coverage, social distancing, wearing masks and other measures. Those can then be calibrated in response to the local context, Olowokure said.

With inputs from agencies

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