On November 24, South Africa notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the emergence of a new variant of the COVID-19 virus strain B.1.1.529. The WHO elevated it to a variant strain of concern and named it Omicron on November 26. The new virus strain has 32 mutated spike proteins, making it easier to enter human cells, thus more infectious than the other variant, Delta, and more likely to render current vaccines ineffective. In view of this, governments around the world have tightened their anti-epidemic measures one after another. Israel and Japan were the first to announce a "closed country" policy, prohibiting foreigners from entering. Today, our experts at Kwiksure will brief you on what is currently known about the Omicron strain.
Symptoms of the Omicron Variant
The symptoms of patients infected with the Omicron variant are usually mild, including mild cough, muscle aches, fatigue, etc. No case has experienced loss of taste or smell by far.
Hong Kong government lists Japan, Portugal, and Sweden in Specified Places Group A
As of today (December 2, 2021), there are a total of 4 imported cases of Omicron variant in Hong Kong, including a 37-year-old man who flew to Hong Kong from Nigeria. He was kept in the restricted area of the airport for 4 days due to visa problems, and was tested positive right before leaving the country. The government also announced that it will designate Japan, Portugal, and Sweden as Group A regions from 00:00 on December 3 (Friday), and tighten boarding and quarantine requirements for those arriving in Hong Kong, banning non-Hong Kong residents who have stayed in these areas within 21 days from entering. Hong Kong residents, on the other hand, must have received two doses of vaccinations and hold an approved vaccination record before boarding and returning to Hong Kong. They must undergo a 21-day compulsory quarantine at designated quarantine hotels upon arrival in Hong Kong. During this period, they must undergo 6 tests, and an additional mandatory test at a community testing center on the 26th day after arrival.
On December 4, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Israel, and Italy were also listed as Specified Places Group A.
Strictest quarantine for arrivals from "Specified Places Group A for Enhanced Quarantine & Surveillance Measures"
In addition, the government has also listed countries including Angola, Botswana, Swaziland, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as "Specified Places Group A for Enhanced Quarantine & Surveillance Measures". Travellers arriving in Hong Kong from these countries must first stay in Penny's Bay Quarantine Centre for 7 days of compulsory quarantine. During the period, they must undergo virus tests every day. Then they will be sent by special vehicles to the designated quarantine hotel that has been booked before their arrival in Hong Kong to complete the remaining 14 days of compulsory quarantine.
Are current vaccines ineffective against Omicron virus?
The science community is still several weeks away from completing their analysis on vaccine efficacy and assessing Omicron's toxicity. On November 30, the team of Professor Yuen Kwok-yung of the Department of Microbiology, HKU Faculty of Medicine, successfully isolated the Omicron variant virus from clinical specimens. This will help researchers study the ability of the virus to enter cells, conduct animal experiments, and evaluate the efficacy of current vaccines against the Omicron variant and the risk of severe disease through the antibodies of patients after infection.
Will the Omicron virus affect the re-opening schedule of Hong Kong borders?
The Hong Kong government originally scheduled to re-open the borders on December 10. Sophia Chan, Secretary for Food and Health, pointed out that all the cases were found in quarantine centres. She believed that the spread of the virus into the community had been successfully blocked, and stressed that the preparation for re-opening was still in progress. But Chief Executive Carrie Lam later wrote that if the epidemic rebounded, the hope for re-opening the borders may be merely "a mirage".
Omicron virus spreading in South Africa
Currently, the Omicron variant has quickly replaced Delta as the main variant behind COVID-19 cases in South Africa. On Wednesday (December 1), the number of newly confirmed cases exceeded 8,500, doubling the number of the previous day. However, it was not yet confirmed how many cases involve the new variant.
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