WHO urges Asia-Pacific region to prepare for Omicron-driven surge in infections

Border controls cannot replace vaccinations and established health precautions, regional director says

An airline worker helps a passenger at Japan's Narita International Airport, Tokyo. AP Photo

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Countries in the Asia-Pacific region should boost their healthcare capacity and fully vaccinate their populations to prepare for a surge in Covid-19 cases fuelled by the Omicron variant, the World Health Organisation said on Friday.

First detected in southern Africa last month and dubbed a "variant of concern" by the WHO, scientists are still gathering data to establish how contagious Omicron is, and the severity of the illness it causes. It has been reported in at least two dozen countries, and started gaining a foothold in Asia this week, with cases reported in Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and India. Many governments have responded by tightening travel rules.

"Border controls can buy time but every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases," Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the western Pacific, told a virtual media briefing from Manila.

"People should not only rely on border measures. What is most important is to prepare for these variants with potential high transmissibility. So far the information available suggests we don't have to change our approach."

Dr Kasai said countries must utilise lessons learnt from dealing with the Delta variant and urged them to fully vaccinate vulnerable groups and implement preventive measures, such as mask wearing and social distancing rules.

Despite restrictions on international visitors, Australia became the latest country on Friday to report community transmission of Omicron, a day after it was found locally in five US states. The case was detected in a student in Sydney with no history of foreign travel.

Globally, cases have been increasing for seven consecutive weeks and the number of deaths has started to rise again too, driven largely by the Delta variant and decreased use of protective measures in other parts of the world, Dr Kasai said.

“We should not be surprised to see more surges in the future. As long as transmission continues, the virus can continue to mutate as the emergence of Omicron demonstrates, reminding us of the need to stay vigilant,” he said.

He spoke especially about the likelihood of surges due to more gatherings and movement of people during the holiday season. The northern winter season will likely bring other infectious respiratory diseases such as influenza alongside Covid-19, he said.

“It is clear that this pandemic is far from over and I know that people are worried about omicron,” he said. “But my message today is that we can adapt the way we manage this virus to better cope with the future surges and reduce their health, social and economic impacts.”

The WHO Western Pacific Region includes 37 countries and areas from Palau to Mongolia.

With reporting from agencies

Updated: December 3rd 2021, 7:50 AM