Omicron variant requires preventive steps

Deputy Director of the Health Board Mari-Anne Härma. PHOTO: Tairo Lutter

The new Omicron variant of the coronavirus that has been added to the World Health Organization’s list of worrying strains has been diagnosed in many European countries. The Health Board is set to advise the government on additional measures this week.

The Netherlands reported at least 13 cases of the new variant on Sunday evening among 61 passengers who tested positive and were quarantined after returning from South Africa. The passengers are still being tested.

Deputy Director of the Health Board Mari-Anne Härma told Postimees why countries react differently in such situations and what should be done in Estonia.

Because little is known about the new B.1.1.529 strain, it is too soon to draw conclusions concerning its infectious potential, Härma said. “It makes sense for countries operating major international transport hubs to take more serious precautions until we know more about the new variant.” She added that the new strain spreading and causing a local outbreak is a bigger threat for countries where Delta variant infections are on the rise.

People returning from Africa

“Countries are busy sequencing positive tests, looking especially at people coming from Africa whose results are showing an S gene mutation that points to the new strain,” Härma explained. Should these samples yield findings of the new variant, it will become clearer to what extent and in which regions Omicron is spreading in South Africa. “The information we have does not suggest the new strain is more widespread than existing ones,” she added.

“The Health Board will propose additional steps in Estonia later in the week,” Härma said when asked whether the agency plans to propose mandatory testing at the airport.

She said that reactions need to be proportional to the threat and decisive action is needed to identify new strains and isolate infected persons as quickly as possible. “We will also be making proposals in terms of how to manage risks during the school break when people take holiday and ski trips. The Health Board will look into every new case associated with traveling, with suspected new strains sequenced and infected persons and next of kin notified and monitored,” the deputy director said.

The Health Board recommends everyone entering Estonia – both vaccinated and unvaccinated people – to get tested.

“People should stay home until they learn their PCR test result. A positive test result requires both vaccinated and unvaccinated people to isolate at home as per government order 212,” Härma emphasized. The recovery and safety of a person who has tested positive can only be decided by a doctor. “Therefore, being vaccinated does not exempt a person from having to quarantine even if they feel fine,” Härma added.

Molecular virologist Aare Abroi told Postimees that people returning from abroad need to be cautious and get tested immediately. Others are urged to comply with existing Covid rules. “We have no reason to suspect the new strain has reached Estonia at this time. There is no reason to fear Omicron inside Estonia, while it is a different story when it comes to international travelers,” he added.

Abroi said that the new variant means people should avoid traveling for a while. “The strain is spreading not just from Africa but also via fellow passengers, while data is still scarce.”

Vaccines still useful

The virologist said that the world might know more about how infectious the new variant is by the end of the week. “In approximately two weeks, we can expect to know how effective Omicron is at avoiding vaccines. These things take time.” Will prior vaccine shots be rendered useless should it turn out the new variant is good at escaping vaccines so to speak? Not according to Abroi. “Riding a poor bicycle will still get you where you are going faster than walking. It is impossible to say today whether it is as good at avoiding vaccines as the Delta variant or better. Perhaps protection will become less effective by a few percentage points. Vaccines are expected to be as effective in preventing hospitalization, while these are all guesses right now as we don’t have the data.”

The scientist said he hopes the government is considering mandatory PCR testing for holiday travelers. “I’m sure they are thinking of ways to make it mandatory.”

Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) said that the Omicron strain reaching Europe and potentially higher risks require Estonia to be even more diligent when it comes to measures. “I have been in contact with neighboring countries’ health ministers and members of the Estonian government, the scientific advisory council and the Health Board,” he said. “We will be hearing from experts in terms of new steps this week to protect the health of Estonians as best we can. Vaccination remains key both as concerns first shots and booster doses, as does compliance with all preventive procedures,” Kiik said.

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