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Early clinical observations globally suggest Omicron COVID-19 variant may have higher reinfection risk: MOH

Early clinical observations globally suggest Omicron COVID-19 variant may have higher reinfection risk: MOH

A transmission electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (File photo: AFP/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases handout)

SINGAPORE: Early clinical observations globally suggest that the Omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible and have a higher risk of reinfection compared to the Delta and Beta variants of the virus, said the Ministry of Health (MOH) on Sunday (Dec 5). 

"This means that there is a higher likelihood of individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 to be reinfected with the Omicron variant," said the Health Ministry in an update on the Omicron variant. 

With the new variant spreading globally, Singapore "must expect to detect more cases at our borders and, in time to come, also within our community", MOH added. 

The ministry said it has, over the past several days, reviewed reports from South Africa and other countries, and actively engaged experts in affected countries to obtain first-hand information.

"This press release updates our understanding of the Omicron variant, even while many questions remain with no clear answers," said MOH.

VACCINATIONS REMAIN KEY: MOH 

Studies on whether existing COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the new variant are ongoing, but "there is an emerging view amongst scientists around the world that existing COVID-19 vaccines will still work on the Omicron variant, especially in protecting people against severe illness", MOH said. 

The ministry urged those eligible to get vaccinated or to go for their booster jabs, saying there is strong scientific consensus that doing so will protect against any existing and future variants of COVID-19. 

Addressing concerns regarding the severity of this strain of the virus, MOH said Omicron cases have "mostly displayed mild symptoms, and no Omicron-related deaths have been reported so far". 

Common symptoms reported include sore throat, tiredness and cough, the ministry added. 

As for reports that there were more Omicron-related hospitalisations among younger people in South Africa, MOH said this could be due to an overall high infection rate among the population. 

Another factor could be that existing patients hospitalised for non-COVID-19 related reasons could have tested positive for the variant while in hospital. 

"Having said that, it is early days to conclude on the severity of the disease," MOH said.

"The outbreak was first detected in a university town with a younger demographic. According to the South African health experts, any hospitalisation stays for this demographic thus far have been short, of about one to two days." 

The ministry said it would need to collect more information on older individuals infected with the Omicron variant to assess if it is more severe than the Delta variant. 

The Health Ministry said studies so far show antigen rapid tests, in addition to the polymerase chain reaction tests, are effective in detecting COVID-19 infection, including Omicron cases. 

"Testing therefore remains key to our early detection and initial containment of transmission," MOH added. 

The ministry also said it would "continue to coordinate with health authorities globally to study and understand the Omicron variant, so as to develop the best possible response". 

MOH's update comes after two imported cases in Singapore tested "preliminarily positive" for the Omicron COVID-19 variant on Thursday.

The passengers were isolated after arriving from South Africa on a Singapore Airlines flight on Dec 1, and did not have any community interaction, the ministry said last week.

Both of them were fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms of cough and scratchy throat. 

MOH said then that there was no evidence of any community transmission from those cases.

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Source: CNA/vc

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