WHO warns of new Omicron variant threat during Tet

By Minh Nga   January 8, 2023 | 10:45 pm PT
The WHO representative in Vietnam has sounded a warning against Covid saying its Omicron subvariant XBB spreads easier, posing a high risk of infection during the upcoming holidays.

With the XBB believed to be capable of evading immune responses and already detected in Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring Tay Ninh Province, the World Health Organization representative, Angela Pratt, has warned of a possible surge in infections during the week's break from January 20 to 26 for Lunar New Year.

"During this holiday season, we of course want people to have fun and to enjoy time with friends and family, but we also urge people to be vigilant, in order to stay healthy and safe," she was quoted as saying in a WHO report.

The World Health Organization representative, Angela Pratt. Photo by VnExpress/Nhat Bac

Angela Pratt, the World Health Organization representative in Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Nhat Bac

The Lunar New Year, or Tet, is the biggest holiday in Vietnam with people flocking back to their hometowns for family reunions or traveling with families.

The emergence of this new variant shows that, unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic is not over yet, she said.

According to WHO, since June 2022 Omicron has been the only variant of concern globally. It has spawned several sub-variants, including XBB, which has been reported in over 10 countries in the Western Pacific region, including Vietnam.

Pratt said: "XBB and its sub-variants are more transmissible than other sub-variants. That is the worrying news."

Studies are ongoing to better understand its ability to get past the protective "shield" provided by existing vaccines, she said.

There is no evidence of a change in the severity of the disease caused by XBB, and current diagnostics and protection measures remain effective, including the WHO approved vaccines, she said.

At the moment WHO recommends the same precautions for XBB as applied for other Omicron sub-variants and Covid-19 in general: Masking up in high-risk settings such as crowded and enclosed places, frequent handwashing and full vaccination, including with all recommended booster doses, for both adults and children.

"So please, before the holidays start, there's still time to make sure you are fully vaccinated, and please do keep practicing those basic public health measures – such as masking up and washing hands," Pratt said.

People attend a count-down event to welcome 2023 in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

People attend a countdown event to welcome 2023 in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

She said in 2022 Vietnam transitioned to what is called the "sustained management" phase of Covid-19, and "has been doing a very good job" of balancing economic and social development with protecting health and safeguarding the health system.

Thus, while Covid is still around, there are no signs of hospitals and health services being overwhelmed with cases, she pointed out.

"But we know the pandemic is not over and people are still being infected, hospitalized – and dying – in many countries, all over the world. And while the virus is circulating anywhere, all countries and all of us individually still face some risk."

The Ministry of Health warned last weekend that the surge in travel during the Tet holidays and relaxation in travel policies in some countries could result in more infections.

"The number of Covid-19 cases from abroad will increase in the coming weeks, especially during the Tet holidays," Nguyen Luong Tam, deputy director of the General Department of Preventive Medicine, said.

He called for personal preventive measures such as wearing masks in public places, washing hands frequently and ensuring full vaccination.

To prevent another potential Covid-19 outbreak, the Ministry of Health said it plans to closely monitor foreign arrivals, especially from pandemic-hit areas and places where new and dangerous Covid strains appear.

It recommended that localities should continue to vaccinate high-risk groups and children between five and 12 years old, especially in major cities and popular tourist destinations.

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