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Omicron may already be in SL: Health Ministry

02 Dec 2021

  • Health Ministry notes variant wouldn’t enter wearing a label
  • Prof. Neelika Malavige says closing borders wouldn’t keep out variant
  • SLMA, Covid experts call for PCR tests on all arrivals
BY Buddhika Samaraweera and Pamodi Waravita The Health Ministry has warned that the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant of SARS-CoV-2 may have already entered Sri Lanka, while former World Health Organisation (WHO) Covid-19 Technical Advisory Committee’s Member Prof. Neelika Malavige said that border controls would not stop the entry of Omicron to the island. Addressing a media briefing held yesterday (2), Health Ministry Communications Director, Public Health Services Deputy Director General (DDG), and Disaster Preparedness and Response Division Head Dr. Hemantha Herath said that the Omicron variant is not easily detectable. “The Omicron variant does not enter the country with a label. Perhaps this variant may have already spread in the country,” he said. He elaborated that the only way to detect if a person is infected with the Omicron variant is to refer their biological samples for gene sequencing. Further, he noted that it is an expensive and labour-intensive process. Therefore, he said that the biological samples of those who have been identified to be vulnerable would be referred for gene sequencing. “What we are doing is referring the biological samples, of those identified at the airports as vulnerable groups, for gene sequencing. In addition, all measures have been taken at the airports in general regarding the Covid-19 pandemic situation,” added Dr. Herath. Meanwhile, Malavige, who is also the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Medical Faculty Immunology and Molecular Medicine Department Head, said yesterday that closing down borders at a time when the country has reached the level of vaccination it has now, prioritising the booster dose is not required, despite the threat posed by the Omicron variant. At a press conference held at the Presidential Media Division (PMD), responding to whether border control measures should be tightened in the wake of the Omicron variant’s spread around the globe, Prof. Malavige stated that such measures would not stop the spread of the virus. “Putting up fences will not stop the spread of the virus. Australia and New Zealand had very strict border controls during the spread of the Delta variant as well. However, the Delta variant entered those countries. It is difficult to stop the spread with border controls. The Omicron variant will one day come to Sri Lanka as well.” In view of the Omicron variant, the Sri Lankan authorities have banned the arrival of foreign travellers who have been to six countries in the African continent, including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, and Eswatini (Swaziland), within the past 14 days. Meanwhile, University of Sri Jayewardenepura Allergy, Immunology, and Cell Biology Unit Director Dr. Chandima Jeewandara, speaking at the same press conference, said that new lab results will be released during the weekend, through which it would be able to ascertain whether the Omicron variant has already entered the country. Elsewhere, the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) yesterday urged the Health Ministry to carry out PCR tests on all those who arrive in the country from abroad. Addressing a media briefing, SLMA President Dr. Padma Gunaratne stated that the Covid-19 Expert Committee has made a recommendation to the Health Ministry that all persons coming to Sri Lanka from abroad be subject to PCR tests in view of the fact that the Omicron variant has now been reported in a number of countries. Meanwhile, Prof. Malavige noted at the PMD press conference that the best precaution against the Omicron variant is to get fully vaccinated and, if possible, receive the booster third dose as well. “England has discovered about 18 cases of the Omicron variant from the community. Thus, England has updated their guidelines and has mandated that everyone above the age of 18 years must receive the booster shot. Previously, they only gave the booster to those over the age of 50 years. There is, however, a possibility that those who are fully vaccinated could get infected with the Omicron variant. However, if they don’t show symptoms or only show very minor symptoms, then I think that that can be considered a victory of sorts. Thus, we must keep our immunity at high levels with a booster dose. Other countries are also preparing to face the Omicron variant by obtaining the booster dose,” she said. Adding that the situation with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic has “completely changed since last year (2020)”, she stressed that when the Delta variant entered Sri Lanka, the immunity levels in the country were not great, noting that the vaccination process at the time was not all that successful. “However, now, the vaccination rate is high and the immunity levels have considerably increased. We know that serious symptoms are shown by the elderly and those who are immunocompromised. Those groups are currently being prioritised for the booster shot. It is proven that with the booster shot, the immunity increases greatly. Everybody is concerned about the Omicron variant. Living with Covid-19 does not mean forgetting about Covid-19, but continuing to adhere to the health guidelines such as mask wearing and social distancing.” Dr. Herath said that 727,370 booster doses have already been administered in the country. The Omicron variant was named as a variant of concern (VOC) by the WHO recently. It was first detected in South Africa, and cases with this particular variant have been reported in the US, Europe, and Japan, amongst many other places. Neighbouring India yesterday reported its first two cases of the Omicron variant. However, Dr. Herath on Wednesday (1) said that the most important thing in this situation is to take necessary steps to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic in general, rather than to find out whether it is the Omicron variant or not. He said that no matter what variant enters the country, it will only spread if the people do not follow the health guidelines properly. Therefore, if everyone follows the health guidelines, he said that the spread of this variant can be minimised. Even if it spreads, the adverse consequences of it can be minimised by adhering to the health guidelines, he added.

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