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No Omicron cases in Singapore so far, but 'matter of time' before variant arrives: Gan Kim Yong

No Omicron cases in Singapore so far, but 'matter of time' before variant arrives: Gan Kim Yong

People walking in pairs in Holland Village on Aug 10, 2021, as dining-in at food and beverage outlets resumes for those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: Singapore has not detected any cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant locally so far, but with more countries reporting infections, it is a "matter of time" before cases emerge here, authorities said on Tuesday (Nov 30).

Although daily COVID-19 cases and the weekly infection ratio remain stable, Singapore needs to remain vigilant with the emergence of the little-known variant, said co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force Gan Kim Yong.

“While we have not detected this new variant among local cases yet, it is only a matter of time before it arrives in Singapore," he said at a press conference.

Therefore, the country is making several "pre-emptive moves" to buy time while it finds out more about the variant, he added.

Anyone suspected or confirmed of being infected with the Omicron variant will not be allowed to undergo home recovery. They will be taken to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases for isolation and management of the disease, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said.

Full contact tracing for these cases will be conducted. Identified close contacts will not be allowed to self-isolate at home, and will be placed on a 10-day quarantine at designated facilities. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will be conducted at the start and end of their quarantine.

Speaking at the same press conference, Health Minister and task force co-chair Ong Ye Kung said Singapore is testing travellers and air crew who arrived in Singapore over the past 10 days and have recent travel history to the affected regions. 

"There are over 200 of them. We have done 174 tests so far and all are negative," he said.

Mr Ong also noted that a particular PCR test, produced by medical device maker Thermo Fisher, can also identify if a person is likely to have been infected by the Omicron variant.

This PCR test will be prioritised to be used on travellers, he said. "It is not foolproof but the indicative result allows us to act faster and differentiate the healthcare protocols between the two kinds of infections."

Singapore also announced on Tuesday stricter on-arrival testing measures for travellers, as well as weekly PCR tests for airport and border frontline workers.

These latest measures will help authorities quickly detect and contain cases infected with the new variant, while reducing the risk of importation and further transmission, said Mr Gan, who is also Trade and Industry Minister.

“As more data becomes available in the coming weeks, we must be prepared to further adjust our measures if necessary to ensure that the situation remains under control before we continue on our reopening journey.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron a “variant of concern” on Nov 26, just days after the variant was first reported in southern Africa. The WHO has said it is coordinating with researchers worldwide to better understand how the variant will impact the COVID-19 pandemic, with new findings expected within “days and weeks”.

But amid reports that Omicron is potentially more contagious than the current dominant Delta variant, countries have raced to contain the new variant by closing borders to foreign travellers or tightening restrictions on them.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore is watching Omicron closely and may be forced to take a few steps back again.

CURRENT VACCINES REMAIN EFFECTIVE: MOH

The proportion of cases that are infected by the Omicron variant in South Africa has rapidly increased, said MOH. As of Nov 29, the variant has also been detected in at least 13 other countries, mainly in people with recent travel history.

“More cases are expected globally as countries continue to enhance their surveillance for the variant. The overall COVID-19 incidence rate in South Africa remains low, but is increasing,” the ministry said.

The COVID-19 task force is looking out for more information on the Omicron variant such as its transmissibility, incubation period and infectious duration, severity of illness and the efficacy of existing vaccines.

“Some of the mutations found in the variant’s genome were previously known to enhance transmissibility and reduce vaccine efficacy in other variants with these mutations,” said MOH.

Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at MOH, told reporters: "We have much to learn about the Omicron variant, whether it's more transmissible or not remains to be seen.

"But irrespective of whether the variant leads to more severe infection or not, our current public health protocols and plans should be able to deal with the prospect of this infection arising in our shores."

Singapore's highly vaccinated population, combined with the ongoing booster programme, would have some protection against this new variant, the ministry added.

Early data suggests that current vaccines are effective against severe disease and death, it noted. "However, more studies are needed to understand the actual impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines and treatments," it said.

Mr Ong said doctors from South Africa have observed that among the Omicron cases with severe symptoms, 65 per cent are unvaccinated and the remaining 35 per cent are partially vaccinated.

“These are very brief, very early data, but it suggests that the vaccine could still be effective and underscores the importance of vaccines,” he said.

“If anything, it is a much more valuable insurance against a big unknown confronting the world now,” Mr Ong said, while stressing that Singapore will push ahead with vaccination.

“This is absolutely the wrong time to argue that because there are new variants, let's not vaccinate and wait for a new vaccine,” he added. “Remember when we are faced with the unknown, we buy insurance. The insurance is now the existing vaccines.”

The minister also compared the situation to a game of snakes and ladders. If the Omicron variant is more infectious or harmful and vaccines do not work well against it, Singapore would have landed on a “snake”. “We will go down and this will set us back a long way,” he said.

But if the new variant turns out to be more infectious but milder, “a less harmful virus” may dominate over the Delta variant which can be seen as “a positive development”. 

“We would have landed on the ‘ladder’ square and maybe even take a leap forward in our transition to living with COVID-19,” said Mr Ong. 

“Or it may be just another variant that makes no great impact. You land on a boring square and we continue our current path to transit to living with COVID-19 as a resilient nation,” he added. "We can only know the answer in the coming weeks."

In the meantime, Singapore should take the prudent approach by implementing appropriate measures to contain the new variant and not let it establish itself in the community, he said.

Editor's note: This story earlier reported that close contacts of Omicron COVID-19 cases will do a 10-day quarantine at government isolation facilities. This has been updated after MOH amended its press release.

Watch the full news conference, including the Q&A session with journalists:

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Source: CNA/sk(cy)

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