All eyes on Omicron variant. . .
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the novel variant of COVID-19 recently reported by South Africa as a ‘variant of concern’ and named it Omicron. While relatively little is known about the variant, including whether it causes more severe disease, it appears to be highly transmissible. The WHO further advised on Monday that Omicron poses a very high risk due to the high number of mutations it possesses, several of which have been associated with immune evasion. This has raised fears that vaccine-induced immunity may be less protective against this variant. The list of countries where Omicron has been detected is growing rapidly, suggesting that it may already have been circulating for several weeks. Canada has detected five confirmed cases to date. In Asia, Hong Kong, Australia, and Japan have reported cases.
New variant met with swift reactions . . .
In the absence of concrete information, fears of what this variant could mean for re-opening plans triggered a drop in stock markets on Friday, including in Asia. Thus far, there has been no move to halt Monday’s long-awaited re-opening of the land border between Singapore and Malaysia, and the border between Hong Kong and mainland China will likely soon re-open, as Hong Kong recently met the necessary requirements. However, the Philippines is restricting arrivals from European countries where Omicron has been detected, and Singapore has decided to delay opening a ‘travel corridor’ with several Middle Eastern countries. Australia has pushed back the re-opening of its borders by two weeks. Enacting the toughest restrictions in the region, Japan has become only the second country in the world to completely close its borders to all foreign arrivals, reversing a recent decision to ease restrictions for international students and short-term business travellers.
Mutations can also be beneficial . . .
Despite the alarm over Omicron, some variants reportedly provide an advantage in the fight against the virus. Amidst the search for clues as to why Japan recently saw new case numbers plunge while many other countries with similar vaccination rates battled rising numbers, a new report describes a ‘self-destruct’ mutation in the version of the Delta variant circulating widely in Japan. These new findings provide encouraging evidence that, at least in Japan, COVID-19 has done what scientists have long hoped for and mutated to attenuate itself. However, the introduction of a new variant such as Omicron that could outcompete the Delta variant could erase these gains, giving Japan further impetus to take an aggressive approach to keep the Omicron variant at bay.
- The Guardian: Omicron Covid variant prompts nervous governments to impose travel curbs
- Nikkei Asia: Philippines, Vietnam and others tighten travel rules over Omicron
- The Wall Street Journal: Omicron disrupts reopening plans across Asia