Health systems across region brace for spikes . . .
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is driving unprecedented spikes in cases in many Asia Pacific countries, even those that have weathered the pandemic well until now. Japan has more than 70,000 daily cases, triggering quasi-emergency measures and restrictions on access to non-COVID medical services. South Korea reported a record-breaking 14,518 infections today as it pursues a new strategy to reduce reliance on widespread testing and isolation. And in the Philippines, Omicron cases are complicating an already troubled recovery from last year’s Typhoon Rai (known locally as Odette). The Visayas region saw its first double-digit growth in Omicron cases this week, sparking fears the variant could spread among the thousands still in evacuation centres.
Pacific Islands countries see first cases, deaths . . .
The most alarming waves are in the Pacific Island countries, some of which had no earlier cases of COVID-19. Fiji discovered community spread of Omicron this month after reopening to tourists, and now has more than 2,500 active cases and several dozen deaths. Kiribati saw community transmission days after 36 cases were discovered on its first international flight arrival in 10 months. Samoa announced yesterday that it would extend its nationwide lockdown after more cases were discovered from a recent flight from Australia. And the Solomon Islands has recorded 650 cases since a boat from Papua New Guinea landed illegally two weeks ago with 23 positive cases. The country’s first two COVID deaths were recorded on Tuesday. Though not yet confirmed, the rapid spread of these outbreaks suggests that the Omicron variant is responsible.
The final ‘first wave’ of the pandemic . . .
Many Pacific Island countries’ health systems are ill-prepared for an outbreak on the scale seen elsewhere. Australia and New Zealand, which have funded much of the regional response to COVID-19, are preoccupied with their own rapidly expanding Omicron clusters. Help may be on the way in the form of new antiviral therapies: A recently announced deal will see 27 manufacturers across the developing world produce Merck’s pills for C$25 per course. It remains to be seen whether these therapeutics will be distributed more equitably and quickly than were vaccines to the most vulnerable countries in the region.