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What we know about Omicron so far: Singapore's MOH

What we know about Omicron so far: Singapore's MOH

MOH has cautioned that Singapore must be prepared to "detect more cases at our borders and, in time to come, also within our community".

On 5 November 2021, Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) has released an official statement updating any current information on Omicron, also known as the B.1.1.529 variant of COVID-19 which was initially reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa.

MOH has been reviewing reports from South Africa and other countries that have reported COVID-19 cases with the Omicron variant, and has actively engaged scientific experts in various affected countries to obtain first-hand information over the past several days. 

This is what we know about the Omicron variant so far:

Q Can it be detected using antigen rapid tests (ART)?

The analysis so far has indicated that, in addition to the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, ARTs are also effective when detecting COVID-19 infection, including Omicron cases. Testing still remains key to early detection and initial containment of transmission.

Q Is it more transmissible than other variants?

Early clinical observations from South Africa and globally suggest that the variant may have increased transmissibility. It may also be associated with a higher risk of re-infection, compared to the Delta and Beta variants. This means that there is a higher likelihood of individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 to be re-infected with the Omicron variant.

Q How severe is the Omicron variant? 

Currently, there have been no Omicron-related deaths reported as of 5 December 2021. Cases detected around the world have mostly displayed mild symptoms. Common symptoms reported include sore throat, tiredness, and cough.

While there were more Omicron-related hospitalisations among young adults and children in South Africa, this could be contributed by two factors. First, high infection rates amongst the population. Second, there have been reports that these are also due to existing patients who were being hospitalised for non-COVID-19 related illnesses being tested positive for the Omicron variant. The patients mostly experienced mild symptoms.

Having said that, it is early days to conclude on the severity of the disease. According to South African health experts, any hospitalisation stays for this demographic thus far have been short, of about one to two days. In the coming weeks, MOH aims to obtain more information about infections in older individuals to assess if the variant is more severe than the Delta variant.

Q Will vaccinations work to protect against Omicron?

There is an emerging view amongst scientists around the world that existing COVID-19 vaccines will still work on the Omicron variant, especially in protecting people against severe illness. That being said, studies on vaccine effectiveness for infection and severe disease compared to previous variants are still ongoing. More information on the variant’s biological behaviour is expected to become available in the coming weeks. 

MOH expects to see more Omicron cases being reported globally in the weeks to come. MOH further advises that Singapore must be prepared to "detect more cases at our borders and, in time to come, also within our community". 

Further, with the lack of sufficient information upon first discovering this variant, there have also been misconceptions and false information being spread around. The Singapore Government would further like to clarify these misconceptions:

Fact 1: The COVID-19 and HIV viruses cannot combine and become another virus that has the characteristics of the HIV and COVID-19 viruses. Genetic recombination (that is, the exchange of genetic information) of viruses is known to occur only in genetically related viruses. The HIV and SARS-CoV-2 viruses are not related, and it is implausible in biological terms that these viruses can undergo genetic recombination. To date, there is also no scientific evidence that such a recombination between HIV and SARS-CoV-2 has occurred.

Fact 2: The COVID-19 and HIV viruses cannot combine in a fully vaccinated patient to become an airborne HIV virus which is vaccine-resistant. The claim that HIV might become transmissible by droplets in the air is also unfounded. Viruses do not change drastically enough to take on vastly different properties. HIV is transmitted via bodily fluids, e.g., blood, semen, or vaginal secretions, and will remain to be so.

Fact 3: The Omicron variant is not a combination of the HIV and COVID-19 viruses. There is simply no scientific evidence to make that claim.

Fact 4: As mentioned previously, there is no evidence to suggest that the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are totally useless against the Omicron variant.

MOH has reminded members of the public not to speculate and/or spread misinformation that may cause public alarm, and instead, to refer to credible sources of information.

Image / 123RF

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