Omicron variant ‘inevitable’, vaccination only way to reduce threat: govt

ISLAMABAD: The Omicron variant of coronavirus that spread around the world last week — with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia over the weekend — will “inevitably” find its way to Pakistan, the government said Monday, and warned the nation had “only a few weeks” to contain the latest threat.

Hours before the government, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the Omicron variant is likely to spread internationally, posing a “very high” global risk where Covid-19 surges could have “severe consequences” in some areas.

The UN agency, in technical advice to its 194 member states, urged them to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” to maintain essential health services.

“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said. “The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high.”

Anticipating the arrival of the variant, the government last week imposed fresh air travel restrictions from seven countries, immediately suspending flights from six African nations — South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini.

The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) also announced flight restrictions from Hong Kong.

But, addressing a press conference, Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar, who also heads the NCOC, said: “The [variant] has to spread in the whole world as we saw before that when a variant comes […] the world is so interconnected that it is virtually impossible to stop it [from spreading].”

Umar, who was flanked by Minister of State for National Health Sevices Dr Faisal Sultan, added that vaccination was the “most logical solution” to curb the latest threat.

“The emergence of new variant makes it even more urgent to vaccinate all eligible citizens 12 years and older,” he said.

The government has so far administered 122 million doses of the coronavirus vaccines with nearly 49.9 million people fully vaccinated.

“It is my appeal to people, particularly those who’ve gotten one dose to get the second dose because this is one effective thing we have to protect ourselves from the danger of this variant,” the minister said.

He noted that a big vaccination campaign was being started in the provinces in the next two to three days and said there was a need to further speed it up. “This variant will come to Pakistan, and we have the next two to three weeks to reduce its threat.”

In view of the variant, he said additional measures were being taken such as increasing the number of daily tests — particularly in high-risk areas — which had previously been reduced as the positivity rate declined.

He added that the contact-tracing system would be revived as well and emphasised the need to “rejuvenate” it with more resources and increased efficiency.

Additionally, a consultation will be completed by Tuesday on administering booster shots to the population most at risk from the coronavirus, he said.

Sultan said the majority of people hospitalised or killed in European countries due to the virus had not been fully vaccinated or had delayed their doses.

He said the Omicron variant was a cause of concern because it was spreading at a rapid pace. “This would strain the healthcare system, resulting in a shortage of beds and oxygen,” he added.

Sultan said as per initial scientific reports, the genetic makeup of the variant was mutated to possibly make the virus deadlier. As it’s impossible to stop the virus from entering Pakistan, it was imperative to get fully vaccinated at the earliest, he said, adding an increase in the vaccination rate would mitigate the effects of the Omicron variant.

The health minister further urged the people to adopt social distancing.

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