SINGAPORE — No cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in Singapore so far, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Tuesday (30 November).
While the Delta variant took three to four months to become the predominant variant globally, the Omicron variant may be faster in transmission, said Ong, who was speaking at a media conference by the multi-ministry taskforce on the coronavirus.
"However, the spread of Omicron can also be slowed down because countries this time are a lot quicker in introducing border measures. So if Omicron establishes itself and causes large epidemics around the world, we hope it will take a couple of months at least," he added.
"This period gives us valuable time to understand this variant, and put in place appropriate counter-measures."
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday that the heavily-mutated Omicron coronavirus – also known as B.1.1.529 – poses a "very high risk of infection surges" that could have severe consequences in some places.
No Omicron-linked deaths had yet been reported since the variant was first detected in South Africa on 9 November, but further research was needed to assess its potential to resist vaccines and immunity induced by previous infections. United States president Joe Biden had said that the new variant "is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic".
In a statement on Tuesday, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said there has been a rapid increase in the proportion of cases that are infected by the Omicron variant in South Africa. As of Monday, the variant has been detected in at least 13 other countries, mainly from persons 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 MOH said.
The MTF is monitoring the situation closely and is looking out for more information on the Omicron variant – its transmissibility, incubation period and infectious duration, severity of illness, and the efficacy of existing vaccines, MOH added.
Ong's comments come a day after the MOH said seven passengers had disembarked from a Singapore Airlines flight travelling from South Africa's Johannesburg to Singapore, which carried two cases who tested positive for the Omicron variant.
All passengers who departed from the South African city on 27 November via the Singapore Airlines SQ481 flight had arrived at Changi Airport on the same day for their transit flight to Sydney, the ministry noted.
Six of those who disembarked in Singapore are serving a 10-day stay-home notice at a dedicated facility and will be PCR tested, added the MOH.
The seventh traveller, who was a close contact of an Omicron case on the flight, has been quarantined.
Contact tracing is ongoing for airport staff who may have come into transient contact with the two cases.
Travel curbs due to Omicron
Many countries have already begun imposing travel restrictions, as Omicron cases are being confirmed throughout the world. Israel is the first country to shut its borders completely, while Japan announced on Monday that it would close its borders to all foreigners.
Since last Friday, Singapore has barred entry to long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with a recent travel history to seven African countries: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
It has also deferred the commencement of vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) for Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE until further notice, in view of their proximity as transport nodes to the affected African countries. These VTLs were originally scheduled to launch on 6 December.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday that Singapore is tracking developments on the Omicron variant "very closely" and could be forced to dial back its reopening plans.
Ong likened the current situation to a game of snakes and ladders, in which there is much uncertainty what Singapore's situation will be with the next throw of the dice.
"If Omicron is more infectious, more harmful, and vaccines don't work very well against it, then we'll have stepped on the snakes square. This will set us back by a long way," he said.
"But if Omicron is infectious but turns out milder, then in time a less harmful virus might dominate over Delta, and that is actually a positive development. Then we'll have landed on the ladder square and maybe even take a leap forward in our transition to living with COVID."
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