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Malaysia pauses transition to COVID-19 endemic phase over new Omicron variant

Malaysia pauses transition to COVID-19 endemic phase over new Omicron variant

People receive the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine on a mobile vaccine truck in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jun 21, 2021. (Photo: AFP/ Mohd Rasfan)

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's efforts to transition to an endemic phase will be put on pause as the government looks to find out more about the new COVID-19 Omicron variant

Senior Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Tuesday (Nov 30) said the government was aware that the variant has not only spread in South Africa, but also to several other countries including Italy, Australia, United Kingdom, and Hong Kong.

“Although we have not heard of any cases in our country to date, precautionary actions will continue to be implemented," he said at a press conference after a meeting of ministers handling the country's pandemic response.

“We are concerned that everything that we had planned before this, the announcements on the relaxation of SOPs (standard operating procedures), the seven criteria that we hoped to announce in the near future on the endemic phase, all this may be affected if we do not monitor the spread of Omicron more closely,” he said

Malaysia's government had previously set seven criteria that needed to be achieved before the health ministry could declare the country as entering the endemic phase of living with the COVID-19 virus.

The criteria included the number of beds being utilised in hospitals, intensive care units and COVID-19 low-risk quarantine and treatment centres; testing capacity at laboratories and the rate of positive cases.

Hishammuddin said the health ministry was also seeking more information on the incubation period, symptoms and infectiousness of the Omicron variant, and would make an announcement on the matter soon.

In the meantime, the government would impose stricter border controls on countries where the new variant was prevalent, he said. 

Commenting on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's call for the lifting of travel restrictions on the country, Hishammuddin said the decision was based on security risks and advice from the health ministry. 

“What the MOH (Ministry of Health) has decided is not too different from what has been done by other countries out there, I believe the African countries understand that it (travel restriction) is not related to diplomacy or geopolitics, but about health.

"We do not want to jeopardise what we have been doing for one and a half years with irresponsible actions," he said.

Ramaphosa on Monday urged countries around the world to immediately lift the travel ban to the country, which he described as being "unjustified and unfair". 

Also addressing the risk of reopening the Malaysia-Singapore border via the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) following the spread of the new variant, Hishammuddin said it was being monitored.

“The Quartet meeting took note of the discussions between the two Prime Ministers (Malaysia and Singapore) on the potential of having more destinations (with the VTL implemented), such as Singapore to Penang, Langkawi, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.

"I have asked all parties to continue to think and discuss, but we will not make a decision until we know the real effects and impact of this new variant," he said.

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