'PREPARE': WHO warns Australia and Pacific to brace for Omicron

The World Health Organisation has warned Asia-Pacific countries to boost healthcare capacity and fully vaccinate their citizens to prepare for a surge in Covid-19 cases as the Omicron variant spreads globally.

It comes as alarming statistics show an increase in hospitalisations for children in Omicron-hit areas while some experts are refuting claims symptoms are only mild.

Australia is the latest country to report community transmission of the new variant, a day after it was found locally in five US states.

Omicron started gaining a foothold in Asia this week, with cases reported in India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.

General view of the Chemist Warehouse store, at The Grove Liverpool shopping site.
Omicron cases have already emerged in Australia, including one case who visited Chemist Warehouse in Liverpool, Sydney. Source: AAP

Many governments have tightened travel rules to keep the new variant out, but the WHO's warning to the Asia-Pacific, a region of about 650 million people, stressed that border controls could only buy them time.

"People should not only rely on border measures," Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the western Pacific, told a virtual media briefing on Friday.

"What is most important is to prepare for these variants with potential high transmissibility. So far the information available suggests we don't have to change our approach."

A global map showing which countries have been affected by the Omicron variant.
The Omicron variant has been identified in at least 37 countries. Source: Al Jazeera

Vaccination rates vary from country to country in the Asia-Pacific but there are worrying gaps.

Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country and once Asia's COVID-19 epicentre, has fully inoculated only about 35 per cent of its population of 270 million people.

In the US, the Biden administration unveiled a suite of measures to guard against the virus spreading.

From Monday, international air travellers arriving in the United States will have to obtain a negative COVID-19 test within one day of travel.

"We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion," US President Joe Biden said on Thursday as he told Americans to prepare for a rise in infections during winter.

Less than 60 per cent of the US population, or 196 million people, have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among wealthy nations.

Global travel curbs have accelerated with Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Norway and Russia, among others, announcing fresh measures on Thursday. Malaysia said on Friday it would tighten restrictions further.

WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Dr. Takeshi Kasai, pictured in Manila on November 11.
WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Dr. Takeshi Kasai pictured in Manila on November 11. Source: AAP

Aside from wreaking havoc in the travel industry, the clamp-down has pounded financial markets and undermined major economies just as they were beginning to recover from the lockdowns triggered by Delta.

Europe's biggest economy, Germany, said it would bar the unvaccinated from all but essential businesses, and legislation to make vaccination mandatory would be drafted for early next year.

Several countries including Britain and the US were bringing forward plans to offer booster shots, but, like travel bans, this is controversial.

'Worrying statistic' emerged among hospitalised patients at Omicron epicentre

Data from an area in South Africa hard-hit by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has shown a high number of hospital admissions of infants under two years old, raising concerns that the variant may pose risks to young children.

A top South African government medical adviser said Friday that the “highly transmissible” Omicron variant has resulted in a spike of children under the age of five years old being hospitalised.

However, South African scientists have said they cannot yet confirm a link between Omicron and the high admissions of infants, which could be due to other factors.

Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding argues that the variant is not as 'mild' as other experts are making it out to be.

“Mild my ass,” he wrote in a tweet. “The ‘highly transmissible’ Omicron variant is putting disproportionately large numbers of children under the age of 5 years old in hospitals.

“This hospital surge (in under-fives) is also interesting because the positivity rate of cases is not even the highest for kids age (under-five). Highest positivity is in teens 10-19.”

To date, there have been no Omicron-related Covid deaths reported.

With Reuters

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