News

Covid-19: The rise of Omicron: Health authorities urge vigilance and compliance

  • Omicron entered country last Friday
  • Health officials expand surveillance, testing, quarantine facilities
  • Govt. conducting random gene sequencing to detect Omicron infections
  • PHIs worried about lax Covid screening at points of entry
  • Get Covid booster shot ASAP: Dr. Jeewandara
  • Jab led to reduction in patients being hospitalised: DGHPB

By Yoshitha Perera 

The discovery of the latest Covid-19 variant known as Omicron has redoubled international efforts to contain its spread and build Covid-19 resilience.

After detecting the first patient infected with Omicron in the island, health officials have taken the necessary measures to expand surveillance, testing, and quarantine facilities, The Sunday Morning learnt. 

Ministry of Health Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Samitha Ginige, last Friday (3), confirmed that the Allergy Immunology and Cell Biology Unit of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura had detected the virus, and that the Health Ministry was taking the necessary steps to control the spread.

“We are carrying out testing and early detection. Within the next two to three weeks, it is possible to get a clear idea of the behaviour of the Omicron variant. If resistance (levels) are high, there is no need to fear variants,” he said.

Upon the Omicron variant recently being declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO), part of the response from the local health sector was to speed up the local vaccination drive.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Health Promotion Bureau (HPB) Director Dr. Ranjith Batuwanthudawa said that health officials were closely monitoring new Covid-19 cases, and that random testing was being carried out continuously.

“Gene sequencing is ongoing across the country,” he stated.

On 26 November 2021, the WHO designated variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, on the advice of its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution. According to their study, Omicron may have several mutations that may have an impact globally.

Vaccination drive continues

According to Dr. Batuwanthudawa, health authorities were continuing the vaccination programme, despite differing opinions around the world on the effects of vaccination as a result of the discovery of the new variant of concern.

“Several findings have suggested that the Covid-19 Omicron variant could contribute to an increase in infections among those who have been vaccinated. However, the results are mixed, and we don’t have enough evidence to believe that. We are administering the immunisations as usual,” he said.

According to Dr. Batuwanthudawa, the first patient who reported contracting the Omicron variant of the virus in South Africa had not been vaccinated and had not received essential therapy for a long-term immunodeficiency illness.

“It has been revealed that this novel Covid-19 virus variant has the ability to spread quickly and also poses a threat to the natural immunity produced by infection,” he elaborated.

Experts have opined that the higher frequency of mutations in the genome of Omicron, when compared to other variants, is a matter of concern, and that scientific research is underway to examine its influence on currently used vaccinations, Dr. Batuwanthudawa said.

“As a nation, we must remember how we dealt with three Covid-19 waves, as well as the rapid spread of the Delta variant across the country, all of which were controlled without causing the country’s health system to collapse. Regardless of the type of variant, sticking to the fundamental Covid-19 preventive measures we already know about, such as maintaining physical distance, wearing facemasks when leaving the house, and washing hands regularly, is critical,” he said.

Dr. Batuwanthudawa added that the protection gained through immunisation against variants of concern, such as the fast-spreading Delta variant, was abundantly obvious, with nations with high vaccination coverage reporting a considerably lower number of Covid-related deaths than before vaccination. According to him, an 84% reduction in hospitalisation was observed among individuals who have received two doses of the vaccine.

Unfortunately, vaccines for low-income countries have been delayed, and Africa as a continent continues to be at risk, with the lowest immunisation coverage in the world. The Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant from South Africa was added to the list of variants of concern, along with the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta Covid-19 variants that were responsible for the worrying Covid-19 waves seen around the world from time to time, Dr. Batuwanthudawa stated.

‘Omicron entering SL was unavoidable’

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) President Dr. Padma Gunaratne said that the entry of the Omicron variant was unavoidable, even though health officials had taken precautions to prevent the new strain from entering the country.

“While the entry of the new variant may have been delayed, there was no assurance that it would not enter the country,” she said last week.

She went on to say that it is important to strictly follow the health guidelines and get vaccinated on time.

Public Health Inspectors’ Union (PHIU) Head Upul Rohana claimed there were numerous loopholes at points of entry into the country, adding: “The airport’s system is so frail that travellers could evade health officials once they arrive.

“Authorities should pay special attention to this and ensure that all methods of evasion are eliminated,” he claimed.

Evidence pending on Omicron resilience to vaccines

Sri Jayewardenepura University Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine Director Dr. Chandima Jeewandara also echoed similar sentiments, emphasising the need for Sri Lankans to remain watchful as global concerns about the highly mutated Omicron variant grow.

He said that there was no substantial evidence that the Omicron variant could evade vaccine-induced or natural immunity. However, based on the collection of mutations, experts believe it may be able to evade vaccine-induced antibodies, he noted.

Dr. Jeewandara recommended that the public get their Covid-19 vaccination booster shot as soon as possible. “The booster dose boosts our immune system resistance. So, even if the Omicron variant enters the country, we won’t have to be concerned. However, nobody knows how severe the Omicron variant’s consequences are yet,” he clarified, speaking to us earlier last week.

He claimed that, as the majority of Sri Lankans received the Sinopharm vaccine, which was manufactured in China and results in the antibodies fading after three months, there was a high necessity for the vaccine booster dose, particularly among the elderly.

Dr. Jeewandara went on to say that the Government’s current efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 had been successful. He also stated that the restrictions imposed on international travellers were adequate.

In light of recent events and in line with the decisions taken by a number of other countries, Sri Lanka has prohibited foreign visitors who had visited six African countries, from entering the country.

Passengers who have travelled to South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, or Eswatini (Swaziland) in the last 14 days, including those who transited in those destinations, are denied entry to the island nation, starting midnight on 28 November.

Last Friday, Sri Lanka detected its first case of Omicron. The Health Ministry announced the new Covid-19 variant was detected in a Sri Lankan national who had recently returned from South Africa. Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Ginige, speaking to the media, said the person was now in quarantine along with their family members, and added that contact tracing was underway.

SL equipped to detect new variant

Sri Lanka has the necessary laboratory resources to identify the virus strain, according to Dr. Jeewandara, who added that the country was fully prepared for the circumstance.

He emphasised that the public should not be concerned about the new coronavirus strain. “We can’t ever completely prevent a viral strain from entering Sri Lanka.”

The Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein, and according to findings, there was also evidence of an increased risk of reinfection.

The WHO on Friday said countries in the South-East Asian region should further strengthen Covid-19 response measures to curtail the spread of the virus and its variants.