Much of Asia has largely managed to keep Omicron in check, although the variant is raging in other parts of the world, but the region, home to most of the planet’s population, is preparing for what may be an inevitable increase.
Strict quarantine rules for arrivals and widespread masking have helped to curb the spread of the highly contagious variant in Asia.
Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand have quickly reintroduced access and quarantine restrictions in recent weeks after easing them in the autumn.
But cases are rising, and experts say the next few months will be critical.
This fear has been reinforced by doubts about the effectiveness of the Chinese-made vaccines used in China and large parts of developing countries.
“Once the pace increases, its increase will be extremely fast,” said Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top medical adviser to the Government of Japan.
In India, which is returning to normal after a devastating COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, Omicron is once again arousing fear, with more than 700 cases reported in the country with nearly 1.4 billion people.
The capital, New Delhi, banned large gatherings for Christmas and New Year, and many other states have announced new restrictions, including curfews and vaccination requirements in shops and restaurants.
At the crowded Chandni Chowk Market in New Delhi, many people shopped without masks this week.
Bicycle rickshaw driver Mahesh Kumar said he is afraid of passengers not wearing masks.
“There are a lot of people who do not believe in this disease. They think it does not exist. But I am very scared. I have children and a family,” he said.
“If something happens to me, who will take care of them?”
Australia is already handling several COVID-19 increases, and a head of state said on Wednesday that “Omicron is moving too fast”.
Elsewhere, Thailand has topped 700 cases, South Korea has more than 500 and Japan over 300.
China, which has some of the strictest virus controls in the world, has reported at least eight.
Only four cases have been reported in the Philippines, where people flocked to malls prior to Christmas and to Mass in the largest Roman Catholic nation in Asia.
Some hospitals have even begun dismantling COVID-19 wards in a move that experts say could prove premature.
Japan managed to delay the spread of the new variant for about a month, mainly thanks to its reintroduction of access restrictions, mandatory COVID-19 tests for all arrivals and the isolation of all passengers on a flight if someone tested positive for Omicron.
But the barrier was broken last week when the first locally transmitted cases were confirmed in the neighboring cities of Osaka and Kyoto.
Experts urge the government to prepare for an impending wave of infections by stepping up testing, speeding up booster shots and preparing more beds in hospitals.
“We would think that omicron cases may be mild, but its rapid infections could quickly multiply the number of patients and could still overwhelm hospitals,” Omi said.
Taiwan, which is almost universal to wear a face mask in major cities, has begun offering booster shots of the Moderna vaccine, urging people to get a third shot before an expected influx of people returning home for the lunar new year at the end of January.
Preliminary research has shown that booster shots of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines provide continued, but diminished, protection against Omicron.
However, a study from Hong Kong University, which has not yet been published, found that China’s widespread Sinovac vaccine does not generate enough antibodies to protect against omicron, even with a booster shot, according to a press release from the university. Hong Kong offers both Sinovac and Pfizer vaccines.
Sinovac did not respond to a request for comment. Chinese officials have said their vaccines are still effective.
“Our inactivated vaccines are still quite reliable and cover a range of antigens. Therefore, they will not be completely ineffective against omicron,” Zhong Nanshan, a top doctor in the government, said in a public forum.
Some countries that relied on Chinese vaccines are turning to others for boosters.
Thailand, which largely used Sinovac and Sinopharm, another Chinese vaccine, offers booster shots of AstraZeneca or Pfizer.
Indonesia, where Sinovac has been the mainstay of a campaign to vaccinate its 270 million inhabitants, offers a Moderna booster to healthcare professionals.
The government is also planning boosters for the general population in January, though it has not said which vaccine.
China’s stance on the virus, Omicron or not, is stopping infection in its tracks, and the country looks set to get even tougher with the approach to the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
Officials locked the city of Xi’an, a city and administrative district of 13 million people, last week, in the middle of a Delta eruption that has infected hundreds of people.
On Monday, they all ordered to stay home until another city-wide test round was completed.
Residents complained on social media about the sudden ban.
Many were addicted to instant noodles and other packaged foods. Some were worried about how they would get enough food in the coming days, especially fresh vegetables.
China puts those arriving from abroad in quarantine for weeks, depending on the province, with three weeks being the most common.
How China’s zero-COVID-19 policy will play out at the Olympics is a big question.
Athletes and visitors will not be allowed to leave the Olympic zones, and participants, such as officials, journalists and staff, will be tested every day.
To curb a deadly Delta-driven rise in South Korea, the government this month reinstated its strictest distance rules with a four-person limit for private gatherings and a curfew at 1 p.m. 21 at restaurants.
Health experts predict that it will only be a matter of time before omicron arrives.
“Omicron has such a high transmission rate that it’s too obvious it’s going to be the dominant variant in South Korea at some point,” said Jaehun Jung, a professor at Gachon University College of Medicine in South Korea.
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