Special Assistant to P.M. on Health warns new variant of concern spreads quickly and has potential to be more dangerous than earlier variants of COVID-19
Warning that it is “practically impossible” to keep the Omicron variant of the coronavirus out of Pakistan in an increasingly globalized world, Special Assistant to the P.M. on Health Dr. Faisal Sultan urged all citizens to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible to reduce the threat posed by it.
“In the past few days, many European states have reported new outbreaks of the coronavirus,” he told a press conference in Islamabad alongside Planning Minister Asad Umar, who also heads the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) coordinating the national response to the pandemic. “This has primarily been reported among people who have not been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus,” he added.
This, he stressed, is particularly worrying in light of the new variant of concern designated by the World Health Organization. Dubbed Omicron, the new variant was originally identified in South Africa and has since been reported in over 6 other states already.
“This new variant spreads much faster than earlier variants,” warned Sultan, adding that its spread poses a risk to health systems, as it could lead to a rapid increase in hospitalizations that could place existing infrastructure under great pressure. “This new variant has certain mutations that make it easier to transmit and could potentially increase the severity of the disease,” he said, adding that the NCOC would be reviewing and strengthening its testing protocol in light of the latest available data.
“However,” he emphasized, “the entire world is now connected so stopping its entry [into Pakistan] is practically impossible.” The only verifiable means to reduce its spread, he maintained, is through vaccinations and urged citizens to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible and continue preventative measures such as avoiding large public gatherings and mask compliance.
“The danger has not passed,” he said. “We’ve administered tens of millions of vaccines thus far, but we still need to administer tens of millions more,” he added.
The planning minister, likewise, warned that the Omicron variant’s entry to Pakistan could not be prevented. “We can delay or reduce the [impact of the] variant from reaching Pakistan,” he said. “But we cannot prevent it,” he said, adding that world was too globalized.
On South Africa, Umar said that the rapid transmission of the Omicron variant could be gauged by how the pandemic had progressed there in the past 12 days. “Just 12 days ago, southern Africa was reporting COVID positivity of 0.9 percent; it is now reporting 9.77%. In just 12 days, they witnessed an increase by 10,” he added. “Once this variant reaches Pakistan, we will not have much time before it spreads,” he warned.
The key preventative measure, he said, was vaccination. “The 30 million Pakistanis who have only received one dose of vaccines thus far should get themselves fully vaccinated as soon as possible,” he said. “We are working with all provincial governments and in another 2-3 days, we’ll start a massive vaccination campaign to expedite the vaccination program,” he said, warning that the next 2-3 weeks were critical and the threat of the new variant could be reduced if more people ensured they were vaccinated against COVID-19.
The planning minister said that the NCOC, in its meeting, had considered offering booster shots for the segment of society most at-risk from COVID-19, adding that decisions in this regard would be announced tomorrow.
On testing, Umar said that authorities were primarily testing symptomatic patients, which had naturally led to a reduction in overall testing in recent weeks. “We have now decided to start randomized testing in high-risk areas and rejuvenate contact tracing to curb the spread of the disease,” he said, adding that more stringent measures would also be implemented at all entry points, including airports, to ensure travelers did not bring the virus from abroad.