Malaysia detects first Omicron case; VTL with Singapore continues

It was detected in a foreign visitor from South Africa who arrived in Malaysia via Singapore on Nov 19. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia has detected its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant but its health minister said the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme between the country and Singapore will continue.

The variant was identified in a 19-year-old woman who had arrived from South Africa via Singapore on Nov 19, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said in a briefing on Friday (Dec 3).

She is a student at a private university in Ipoh, Perak, and has completed her Covid-19 vaccination, he said.

The student was quarantined for 10 days before being released on Nov 29.

Authorities had re-tested earlier positive samples after the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced Omicron as a variant of concern on Nov 24, Mr Khairy said.

Five other people who shared a vehicle with the woman prior to her quarantine all tested negative.

"It's important to note that this case came in to Malaysia on Nov 19 before South Africa reported the first case to the World Health Organisation," he said.

"After we found out about Omicron we went back to do genomic tests on all positive cases from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport between Nov 11 and 28. That's how we detected the case."

Authorities, however, have asked the student along with eight close contacts to undergo further testing after her earlier test samples were confirmed to be the new variant, Mr Khairy added.

An increasing number of countries are reporting cases of the Omicron variant, which the WHO has said carries a very high risk of causing surges of infection.

Neighbouring Singapore confirmed two imported cases on Thursday.

In response to media queries, Singapore's Ministry of Health saidon Friday that the traveller had arrived in Changi Airport from Johannesburg via Singapore Airlines Flight SQ479 on Nov 19. She remained in the transit holding area until she left for Malaysia on the same day.

The ministry added that 15 passengers on board her flight had been identified as her close contacts, but none entered Singapore with contact tracing underway.

This week, Malaysia temporarily banned the entry of travellers from eight southern African countries that have reported the presence of the variant or are considered high-risk.

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Malaysia and Singapore on Monday opened land and air vaccinated travel lanes, and plan to further reopen their borders as daily infections decline.

Malaysia will maintain its travel lane with Singapore for now, Mr Khairy said.

"I've spoken to my Singapore counterpart this morning... and we reaffimed that the VTL will continue. We will continue to update each other on a daily basis and coordinate our response accordingly."

Mr Khairy reiterated that Malaysia would immediately impose further restrictions, including additional tests for vaccinated travellers from Singapore, who are allowed to enter Malaysia without quarantine.

Mr Khairy had said on Wednesday that travellers who enter Malaysia via the VTL are required to take additional Covid-19 rapid tests on the third and seventh day after their arrival.

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