Omicron XE on its way to Malaysia, experts warn

The Omicron XE variant is said to be 10 per cent more transmissible compared with the current variant. PHOTO: REUTERS

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Even as Malaysia's daily Covid-19 cases are on a downtrend, there is every possibility of the Omicron XE variant reaching its shores within a month and posing a new danger, experts warned.

According to Universiti Putra Malaysia medical epidemiologist Malina Osman, the current Omicron variant arrived in Malaysia within a month or two even when the country's borders were closed.

In view of this, Associate Professor Malina predicted that Omicron XE could arrive much faster as it has been detected in Thailand, Taiwan and Britain.

"For the Omicron XE, theoretically, it can arrive faster compared to the current Omicron variant, but we hope our surveillance can help to limit the spread," she said when contacted by The Star on Wednesday (April 6).

First detected in Britain on Jan 19, the Omicron XE variant, a mutation of the Omicron BA.1 and BA.2 strains, is said to be 10 per cent more transmissible compared with the current variant.

Prof Malina said there was no indication that the Omicron XE variant was causing severe infections like the Delta variant, but noted that the risk was high for those who have yet to be vaccinated, or had no previous infection.

However, she believed that the situation would be under control as Malaysia has good vaccination coverage, good adherence to health protocols, and measures in place for travellers to limit the spread.

"What we have to focus on now is to ensure coverage of vaccines among those aged five to 11, booster shots to achieve coverage of at least 70 per cent to 80 per cent, and provision of specific care for children less than five years old as well as those unable to be vaccinated," she said.

Volunteers for Community Engagement and Empowerment For Covid-19 chairman Zainal Ariffin Omar also predicted that the new variant would arrive in less than a month due to higher domestic and international movements.

He said that continuous testing and variant identifications must be carried out, adding that the country's healthcare system would be able to handle a surge in cases.

"It is still resilient and robust," he said.

Universiti Putra Malaysia's consultant clinical microbiologist Zamberi Sekawi concurred, saying that the variant might enter the country at a much faster rate as the borders had reopened.

However, he said this variant would have to compete with the existing Omicron variant to be the dominant variant.

He added that not much was known about the Omicron XE variant in terms of its severity, and whether it could evade the vaccines.

"If the character of this variant is the same as Omicron, then our healthcare system will be able to cope," said Prof Zamberi, adding that the authorities had to be on guard by increasing surveillance not just for foreigners, but also locals.

The country first saw a surge in cases, hospitalisations and deaths when the Delta variant hit the country last July.

On July 14, Health Ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said the Delta variant, first detected in India, was the dominant variant in the country then, with cases hitting a peak of 22,642 cases on Aug 25.

Subsequently, as cases fell, the country experienced another surge in cases at the beginning of January this year, and Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin warned that the Omicron variant wave had begun in the country.

The Omicron variant was first reported in South Africa on Nov 24, 2021, and Malaysia detected its first Omicron variant case on Dec 2, 2021, involving a 19-year-old South African private university student in Ipoh who arrived from South Africa through Singapore on Nov 19.

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