New Covid variants may delay return to normalcy

PETALING JAYA: There are fears among medical experts that new and fast spreading Covid-19 variants will act as roadblocks on Malaysia’s path to normalcy.

They say there is a likelihood that progress in fighting the pandemic will slow down considerably.

According to the health ministry, six variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been documented in the country – Beta, Delta, Alpha, Kappa, Theta and Eta. The first three are termed VOC (variants of concern) and the other three as VOI (variants of interest).

By June 22, 189 cases of the variants had been reported, 173 VOC. So far, the largest group of infections has been from the Beta variant. This is followed by the Delta variant.© Provided by Free Malaysia Today Dr Lee Boon Chye.

Former deputy health minister Dr Lee Boon Chye believes actual cases could be higher.

“We don’t do gene sequencing of the virus for all cases or for all clusters. Hence, the number of VOC and VOI detected is just a fraction of the actual number of such cases,” he told FMT.

“But current data is still useful because it shows what is our predominant variant.”

Lee said these variants would hinder Malaysia’s progress towards recovery if Putrajaya did not ramp up efforts against the disease.

He said the slowness of the vaccination programme would give time for the virus to mutate and exacerbate the situation in the country.

“Slow vaccination means higher possibility of new variants in the country. The infectivity rate will decrease only when we exceed 16 million doses in the vaccination programme.”

Asked if the presence of these variants was the reason the infectivity rate had remained high despite the lockdown, Lee said it was probably only one of the reasons.

“While it is true that some variants such as Delta have higher transmissibility and contribute to the increase in cases, the main factors are still the failure of the lockdown and ineffective close contact tracing,” he said.

“The current lockdown still allows many businesses, especially big companies, to operate. Hence, workplace clusters will continue to emerge.”

He said the government should consider the mix-and-match vaccination approach to increase the efficacy of certain vaccines.

“Our predominant variant is the Beta variant and South Africa has reported that AstraZeneca is ineffective against it,” he said. “Therefore, we should seriously consider using other vaccines for those who have received the first dose of AstraZeneca.”

Dr Sanjay Rampal, an epidemiology specialist at Universiti Malaya, said the major vaccines were still effective in preventing severe disease although the new strains would increase the likelihood of infection.

“With the existence of new variants, we should be realistic with our expectation on when the immunisation will be completed,” he said.

“The current strategy is to first vaccinate the population to decrease the overall susceptibility to the virus.

“The long-term goal should be to live with the virus with sustainable Covid-19 prevention and control measures.” – FMT

by Hakimie Amrie Hisamudin

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