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As Omicron Case Numbers are Exploding Around the World, Malaysia Stays a Steady Course

Image Credit: Bloomberg
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A number of countries have set all-time record highs in new daily cases with the highly transmissible Omicron variant, but here in Malaysia, conditions remain stable.

As we drag into the third year of the long coronavirus pandemic, fresh new waves of Covid-19 cases are surging throughout the world. The Omicron variant, which was identified barely over a month ago, has proven to be extraordinarily transmissible, and combined with the colder weather in northern latitudes (which keeps more people indoors), the disease is now spreading like wildfire throughout many countries.

Yet so far, Malaysia has not seen a significant growth in Covid cases, even though Omicron is definitely present in the country.

It’s hard to know exactly why the country has, to date, been spared the explosive new case numbers being seen in other countries. It’s likely a combination of factors that’s seemingly held the highly contagious Omicron variant at bay in Malaysia, not least of which is the country’s outstanding vaccination coverage, which continues to slowly inch higher with every passing week.

Getting the booster shot is crucial for increased protection against Omicron | Image Credit: The Times

Over 78% of Malaysia’s entire population is fully vaccinated, with about 20% of the country’s roughly 32 million residents having had their third ‘booster’ jab, as well.

When considering the adult population (18 and older), the vaccination numbers are even more impressive. An incredible 98.9% of all adults in Malaysia have had at least one dose, and 97.7% are fully vaccinated. Additionally, over 27% of all adults have received their booster shot, and that number continues to increase, with around 100,000 people a day getting the jab.

Given the incontrovertible evidence of the effectiveness of the Covid vaccines, it seems reasonable to believe that the high rate of vaccination in Malaysia is a key contributor to the relative stability of new daily cases (which have dropped below 4,000 a day and stayed below that figure since December 19), and the continuing decline of hospitalisations and deaths due to Covid.

Broad acceptance of wearing face masks in public may also be a factor. You simply don’t see the strong resistance to face masks here that has been so absurdly prevalent in some Western countries. Better still, it seems more and more Malaysians are turning to N95, KN95, and KF94 masks, which offer superior filtration. It’s not uncommon to see people here double-masking, as well.

N95 face masks offer the best filtration and protection | Image Credit: Quartz

Malaysia’s year-round tropical warmth may even play a small part, as there are no defined seasons here that would drive seasonal outbreaks of any respiratory illnesses.

All that said, officials in Malaysia nevertheless warn that the likelihood of the country experiencing a wave of Omicron infections is ‘high,’ basically affirming that it’s not a matter of if, but merely when. The goal, however, is to stem the tide, slow the spread, and mitigate the impact so that the healthcare sector isn’t over-stressed by the surge.

OMICRON KNOWLEDGE BASE IS GROWING

The Omicron variant is still quite new, so solid data is still being amassed. However, what we know about the variant is increasing week by week. Just within the last two weeks, researchers have gathered more information that supports the belief that Omicron leads to milder cases of Covid-19.

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Dr Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration and now a current board member for Pfizer, spoke about the new data on Sunday, December 26, saying, “It does appear now, based on a lot of experimental evidence that we’ve gotten just in the last two weeks, that this is a milder form of the coronavirus.”

However, with the good news came a caveat: “It appears to be more of an upper airway disease than a lower airway disease. That’s good for most [people],” explained Dr Gottlieb. “The one group that that may be a problem for is very young children — toddlers — who have trouble with upper airway infections,”

Adding to the comments from Dr Gottlieb, a just-released study in the UK showed the risk of hospitalisation with Omicron to be just about one-third that from the Delta variant surge.

The UK study also concluded the vaccines work well against Omicron: “In this analysis, the risk of hospitalisation is lower for Omicron cases with symptomatic or asymptomatic infection after two and three doses of vaccine, with an 81% reduction in the risk of hospitalisation after three doses compared to unvaccinated Omicron cases,” the UK Health Security Agency said.

The study, conducted by the UKHSA and Cambridge University, was quite comprehensive, analysing 528,176 Omicron cases and 573,012 Delta cases.

Omicron’s symptoms can seem a lot like the common cold or a mild case of flu | Image Credit: NY Post

STILL NO CONFIDENT PREDICTIONS FOR OMICRON

Though experts are learning more and more about the Omicron variant, no clear path forward has emerged, nor any solid signs of what the variant may or may not mean for the overall pandemic.

One ongoing concern with Omicron, however, even with its apparently milder symptoms, is that the incredibly high transmissibility of the variant could result in large numbers of hospitalisations: Even with a lower rate of hospital admissions, the sheer numbers may still be high enough to overwhelm the healthcare systems of some countries. So far in December, according to the UK study, the actual number of hospitalisations has risen a bit, but the number of patients requiring ventilation and/or ICU beds has remained fairly steady, a notable change from other peaks during the pandemic.

It’s also been made clear in studies that while the vaccines may not offer iron-clad protection against getting infected by the Omicron variant, the evidence is very strong that they do protect against severe illness, especially once the third jab has been given. That is of course encouraging on a personal level, but from a broader, population-wide level, it lends more support to the idea that we are heading towards endemicity with the spread of Omicron: a variant that is highly transmissible, but milder than previous strains, and one against which current vaccines still protect.

The necessity for the booster is clear | Infographic courtesy of NIH

On that note, at least some experts now seem to be tentatively reaching a state of cautious optimism, with more and more saying they believe Omicron may be the beginning of the end for the pandemic. Several notable authorities have expressed their belief that 2022 will see the pandemic move to an endemic stage.

However, there are also renewed calls for vigilance. “Continue doing what you’ve been doing” seems to be the standard advice — avoiding crowds, wearing a good face mask in public, getting vaccinated and boosted, washing your hands regularly, and practicing good hygiene.

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