Is new COVID-19 variant a cause of concern for Thailand?

A petrol attendant stands next to a newspaper headline in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

With the holiday season just around the corner, Thai hearts sank when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new COVID-19 mutant “Omicron” a variant of concern.

The fresh virus threat triggered fears of a new pandemic wave that could sweep away New Year festivities and wreck economic recovery.

However, as of press time, not a single case of Omicron had been detected in Thailand. Meanwhile, authorities and vaccine manufacturers around the world have been quick to respond to Omicron’s presence.

About Omicron

On November 24, South Africa reported to the WHO that it had detected a new variant, named B.1.1.529. Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 infections in South Africa rose sharply – coinciding with the detection of the variant in a sample collected on November 9.

The variant, later named Omicron, has a large number of mutations, sparking concern that it may be more transmissible and vaccine-resistant than other variants. Preliminary evidence also suggests Omicron carries a greater risk of reinfection than even Delta, which is currently the dominant strain in Thailand and around the world.

It’s all in the name

WHO deliberately skipped the Greek alphabets “nu” and “xi” in naming this new variant.

“‘Nu’ is too easily confused with ‘new’, and ‘xi’ was not used because it is a common [Chinese] last name. WHO’s best practices for naming a disease suggest avoiding ‘causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’,” a WHO spokesperson said last Saturday.

The move led to speculation that “Xi” had been avoided out of concern about offending China’s president, Xi Jinping.

How far has Omicron spread?

Omicron cases have been found across southern Africa – in South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Cases have also been reported among arrivals in Belgium, Germany, Britain, Israel, Netherlands, and Hong Kong.

Currently, fully vaccinated travelers from Hong Kong can enter Thailand without quarantine under the Test & Go scheme.

Thailand’s response to Omicron

Public Health Ministry permanent secretary Dr Kiattibhoom Vongrachit said Thais have no reason to panic, as travelers arriving from Africa are still required to quarantine for at least 10 days. Thailand has eased quarantine rules for many other countries.

Moreover, from December 1, travelers from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will be barred from landing in Thailand, according to Medical Sciences Department director-general Supakit Sirilak.

Travelers from these countries who arrive before December 1 must spend 14 days in quarantine.

“We are not allowing any travelers from other African nations to arrive under the [quarantine-free] Test & Go or [relaxed quarantine] sandbox schemes,” Supakit said.

Are Thais at risk?

Official data shows that more than 1,000 people traveled from Africa to Thailand over the past month. However, so far not a single Omicron case has been detected in the Kingdom.

Supakit said he is confident that Thailand will be able to detect any cases of the variant that enter the country.

“It should also be noted that the number of Omicron cases across the world is currently limited to a few thousand,” he said. More information on the variant needs to be compiled and analyzed to determine its level of virulence, he added.

Response from vaccine makers

Major COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers have announced that they will adapt their formulations swiftly to tackle the new variant. Moderna, for instance, has said it will move forward rapidly with its Omicron-specific booster candidate, mRNA-1273.529.

Responding to previous variants like Delta and Alpha, Moderna managed to have vaccine candidates ready for clinical testing within 60 to 90 days.

Pfizer and BioNTech are also expected to produce a tailor-made vaccine against this variant in about 100 days, subject to regulatory approval.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk


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