Omicron in SL: Major chaos unlikely, says expert

  • Sequencing of PCR samples from returning overseas travellers intensified

By Aazam Ameen

Despite the detection of Sri Lanka’s first case of the Omicron B.1.1.529 Covid-19 variant of concern, Sri Jayewardenepura University Allergy, Immunology, and Cell Biology Unit Director Dr. Chandima Jeewandara told The Sunday Morning that it was unlikely that the Omicron variant would cause major chaos in the country.

Explaining further, Dr. Jeewandara compared the current situation to what the country faced when the B.1.1.7 Alpha and B.1.617.2 Delta variants were responsible for most of the Covid-19 cases.

“When Delta hit the country, the immunity of the people was lower. Now, the situation is different. After two years (since the pandemic hit), we know the virus and our immune systems are more or less familiar with it. We speculate that Omicron will not have a similar effect as the Delta and Alpha variants of the past,” he opined.

While highlighting Sri Lanka’s progress in terms of vaccination, Dr. Jeewandara noted that with high-risk groups already receiving Pfizer-BioNTech booster doses, and if people follow the health guidelines, risks of virus transmission, severe disease, and death can be minimised. It was also stressed that the unvaccinated population was more at risk of contracting the Omicron variant.

In terms of the rate at which the Sri Jayewardenepura University’s Allergy, Immunology, and Cell Biology Unit conducts sequencing runs for the identification of the Omicron variant, Dr. Jeewandara detailed that approximately 96 samples were sequenced on a weekly basis. 

Sequencing of PCR samples obtained from returning overseas travellers had also intensified, he said, adding: “These samples are specifically sent to our lab by the Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry. We will be doing another run next Thursday.”

Dr. Jeewandara also said that the facilities at the university were on par with the rest of the world. Furthermore, he pointed out that the Omicron variant displays an s-gene target failure characteristic, making the process of identifying its presence easier.

“Earlier, s-gene target failure was seen as a diagnostic of the Alpha variant. However, because Alpha is no more, and given that Omicron also displays the same diagnostic characteristic, when we see the same, we are alerted to sequence such samples,” he notes.

The Omicron variant was first detected in the country last Friday (3), as a result of the sequencing run conducted by Dr. Jeewandara’s lab last Thursday (2).

The variant was detected in a Sri Lankan national who recently returned to the island on 24 November from Nigeria, according to Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Samitha Ginige. The 25-year-old female in question is currently under quarantine. She is reportedly a resident of the Marawila area.