Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia
Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia

South-East Asia Region should strengthen COVID-19 response measures to curtail spread of variants amid Omicron scare: WHO

ANI | Updated: Dec 03, 2021 22:23 IST

New Delhi [India] December 3 (ANI): As India confirmed two cases of Omicron, the World Health Organization on Friday said that countries in South-East Asia Region should further strengthen COVID-19 response measures to curtail the spread of the virus and its variants.

"Strengthening surveillance to rapidly detect importation of any new variant and transmission of the existing virus and its variants; implementing calibrated public health and social measures and scaling up vaccination coverage, should continue to be our focus," Regional Director WHO South-East Asia Region Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh said in a statement.
Within a week of the announcement of Omicron as a new variant of concern, India on Thursday confirmed the variant in two persons detected with COVID-19, the first few cases in WHO South-East Asia Region, the UN health body said in a press release.

Studies are underway to evaluate Omicron's transmissibility, severity, reinfection risk, immune escape potential, clinical presentation, response to other available countermeasures etc. Preliminary evidence suggests higher transmissibility and potential immune escape that could lead to a surge in cases. Regardless of the change in severity, an increase in cases alone may pose overwhelming demand on health care systems and may lead to increased morbidity and mortality, the release read.

The Regional Director said as part of enhanced surveillance, countries need to ensure they have early warning systems in place composed of multiple indicators such as rapid increase in cases and test positivity rates. It is also important to monitor indicators related to disease severity and pressure on health care systems - such as bed occupancy in wards and intensive care units.

Event-based surveillance must be enhanced such as - the rapid spread of outbreaks in healthcare facilities or communities which may be triggered by a variant that spreads more easily from person to person. Or increase in cases among populations expected to have a high level of immunity with prior infections or high vaccination coverage, which may indicate the presence of a variant able to evade the immune response.

Even as studies are ongoing to understand the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics in view of the multiple mutations in Omicron, it is reasonable to assume that currently available vaccines offer protection against severe disease and death, the Regional Director said, adding that efforts should be intensified to accelerate COVID 19 vaccination coverage in all eligible populations but with priority for populations at high risk for serious disease who remain unvaccinated or not yet fully vaccinated. These include older adults, health care workers and those with underlying conditions which puts them at risk of severe disease and death.

National authorities should apply a multi-layered risk mitigation approach to potentially delay the export or import of the new variant. Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, instead, they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, such bans can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data, Dr Khetrapal Singh said.

The use of masks, physical distancing, ventilation of indoor space, crowd avoidance, and hand hygiene remain key to reducing transmission of COVID-19, even in the context of emerging variants, she said. These measures may need to be enhanced, to further limit interpersonal contact, to control transmission with a more transmissible variant. Countries should be ready to escalate public health and social measures in a timely manner to avoid overwhelming demands on health care services, the release added.

On the option of imposing lockdown to curtail virus transmission, the Regional Director said, though effective, these measures are very costly and should be used as a last resort.

"We cannot and should not let the virus and its variants spread and mutate further and continue to challenge us. We need to do everything we can to curtail their spread. We know what to do. The pandemic has lasted just too long and is draining our precious human and other resources. We need to stop this," the Regional Director said. (ANI)