Asia keeps omicron at bay, but a surge may be inevitable

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Much of Asia has largely managed to keep omicron at bay even as the variant rages in other parts of the world, but the region that is home to most of the globe’s population is bracing for what may be an inevitable surge.

Strict quarantine rules for arrivals and widespread mask wearing have helped slow the spread of the highly contagious variant in Asia. Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand quickly reinstated entry and quarantine restrictions in recent weeks after relaxing them in the fall.

But cases are mounting, and experts say the next few months will be critical. These fears are heightened by concerns about vaccine effectiveness in China, as well as other parts of the developing world.

“Once the pace picks up, its upsurge would be extremely fast,” said Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top medical adviser to Japan’s government.

In India, which has been getting back to normal after a devastating COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, omicron is once again raising fears, with more than 700 cases reported in the country of nearly 1.4 billion people.

The capital, New Delhi, banned large gatherings for Christmas and New Year’s, and many other states have announced new restrictions, including curfews and vaccination requirements at stores and restaurants.

At the crowded Chandni Chowk market in New Delhi, many people were shopping without masks this week. Mahesh Kumar, a cycle ricksha driver said that he fears passengers who do not wear masks.

“There are many people who don’t believe in this disease. Many people believe it does not exist. However, I’m very afraid. He said that he had children and a wife. He said, “If anything happens to me who will care for them?”

Australia is already dealing with multiple COVID-19 surges, with a state leader saying Wednesday that “omicron is moving too quickly.” Elsewhere, Thailand has topped 700 cases, South Korea has more than 500 and Japan, over 300. China has at most eight cases despite having some of the tightest virus control systems in the world.

Only four cases have been reported in the Philippines, where people flocked to shopping malls ahead of Christmas and to Mass in the biggest Roman Catholic nation in Asia. Some hospitals have even begun dismantling COVID-19 wards in a move experts say could prove to be premature.

Japan managed to delay the spread of the new variant for about a month largely thanks to its reimposition of entry restrictions, mandatory COVID-19 tests for all arrivals and the isolation of all passengers on a flight if anyone 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 increase testing and speed up booster shots, as well as preparing for an upcoming wave of infection.

“We want to believe the omicron cases could be mild, but its fast-paced infections could quickly multiply the number of patients and could still overwhelm hospitals,” Omi said.

Taiwan, where wearing a face mask is near universal in major cities, has started to offer booster shots of the Moderna vaccine and is urging people get a third shot before an expected influx of people returning home for Lunar New Year at the end of January.

Preliminary research has shown that booster shots of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines offer continued, though diminished, protection against omicron.

However, a Hong Kong University study that has yet to be published found that China’s widely used Sinovac vaccine does not generate enough antibodies to protect against omicron, even with a booster shot, according to a university news release. Both the Sinovac vaccine and Pfizer vaccine are available in Hong Kong.

Sinovac did not respond to a request for comment. Chinese officials claim that their vaccines work.

“Our inactivated vaccines are still rather reliable and cover a range of antigens. They won’t completely ineffective against the omicron,” Zhong Nanshan (a high ranking government doctor) said during a forum.

Some countries that relied on the Chinese vaccines are turning to others for boosters.

Thailand, which largely used Sinovac and Sinopharm, another Chinese vaccine, is offering booster shots of AstraZeneca or Pfizer. Indonesia, where Sinovac has been the mainstay of a campaign to vaccinate its 270 million residents, is offering a Moderna booster for health care workers. Although it is not yet clear which vaccine, the government has announced plans to provide boosters for January’s general population.

China’s attitude toward the virus, omicron or not, is to stop transmission in its tracks, and the country appears to be getting even tougher with the approach of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.

Officials locked down the city of Xi’an, a city and administrative area of 13 million people last week, amid a delta outbreak that has infected hundreds of people. They ordered all residents to remain at home for another round of citywide testing.

Residents complained on social media about the sudden ban. People were still relying heavily on packaged foods and instant noodles. Many were concerned about how they would get sufficient food, particularly fresh vegetables, in the days ahead.

China quarantines those arriving from abroad 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 major question. Visitors and athletes will not be permitted to leave Olympic areas. Officials, journalists, and staff at the venues will all be subject to testing.

To contain a deadly delta-driven surge in South Korea, the government this month restored its toughest distancing rules with a four-person limit on private gatherings and a 9 p.m. curfew on restaurants.

Health experts predict it’s only a matter of time before omicron comes.

“Omicron has such a high transmission rate that it’s too obvious that it’ll become the dominant variant in South Korea at some point,” said Jaehun Jung, a professor at Gachon University College of Medicine in South Korea.

Associated Press staffers Busaba Sivasomboon in Bangkok, Thailand, Jim Gomez in the Philippines, Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, Krutika Pathi and Rishabh Jain in New Delhi, Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Japan and Olivia Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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