Vandine: Prepare for potential arrival of new Covid variants

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Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine. MOH

Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine on November 26 cautioned the public about a potential threat in the Kingdom from two newly-flagged variants of SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – formally known as B.1.640 and B.1.1.529 (Omicron).

In an audio message addressed to the public, Vandine noted that B.1.640 was first reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

European and British health authorities have classified the strain as a “variant under monitoring”, which indicates that it could pose a risk, but that evidence of phenotypic or epidemiological consequences remains inconclusive.

Meanwhile, B.1.1.529 was first reported in South Africa, and has since been detected in neighbouring Botswana and then in Hong Kong – in a traveller arriving from South Africa.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on November 26 assigned the Greek letter Omicron – the next one available after Mu, Nu and Xi – to the strain, and classified it as a “variant of concern” (VOC).

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs,” it said.

The ministry’s Vandine noted that scientists are voicing concern over the transmissibility of Omicron and the high number of mutations on its spike proteins, some of which could help the virus evade immune and antibody responses induced by Covid-19 vaccines.

“The WHO is monitoring its behaviour to see how easily it can be transmitted, how much damage it could cause, and its implications for our antibodies,” she said.

She called on the public to heighten vigilance, reasoning that the strain could potentially be brought into Cambodia by travellers. “When there are people coming in from everywhere, the possibility of transmission exists.”

“We must remain extremely cautious and vigilant at all times.”

The spokeswoman urged the public to avoid crowded places and follow the other “three do’s and three don’ts” guidelines, pointing out that the Kingdom is moving towards living with Covid-19 in the “new normal”.

The “three do’s” are to wear a face mask, wash hands frequently, and keep a safe distance from other people (usually defined as 1.5m), and the “three don’ts” are to avoid confined and enclosed spaces, stay away from crowded places, and refrain from touching others.

Vandine said: “Please don’t forget, don’t panic, and don’t be too reckless. Everyone has to be responsible for their own health, and that of their families and communities, and hold fast to the ‘three do’s and three don’ts’ in order to make our return to the ‘new normal’ sustainable in the long-term.”

The WHO urged all countries to “enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants”.

The health agency also asked countries to “submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID”, and “report initial cases or clusters associated with this variant infection to WHO through the IHR [International Health Regulations] mechanism”.

“Where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, [the countries should] perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on Covid-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralisation or other relevant characteristics,” it said.