Inevitable that Omicron variant will come to Pakistan, we have weeks to reduce its threat: Asad Umar
Federal Planning Minister Asad Umar warned on Monday that the latest concerning variant of the coronavirus, Omicron, will inevitably come to Pakistan and the country had only a few weeks to contain its threat.
Addressing a press conference alongside Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan, Umar stressed the need for citizens to get vaccinated and complete their doses.
"This [strain] has to spread in the whole world as we saw before that when a variant comes, the world is so interconnected that it is impossible to stop it," the minister said, adding that vaccination was the most logical solution to curb the threat.
He said the initial information the government had received was that although Omicron was a "very dangerous" variant, vaccination will be effective against it.
"So it is my appeal to Pakistanis, particularly those who've gotten one dose to get the second dose because this is one effective thing we have to protect ourselves from the danger of this variant," Umar said.
He noted that a big vaccination campaign was being started in the provinces in the next 2-3 days, saying there was a need to speed it up further. "This variant will come to Pakistan, and we have next 2-3 weeks to reduce its threat."
In view of the variant, Umar said additional measures were being taken such as increasing the number of daily tests — particularly in high-risk areas — which had previously been reduced as the positivity rate declined.
He added that the contact-tracing system would be revived as well and emphasised the need to "rejuvenate" it with more resources and increased efficiency.
Additionally, consultation will be completed by Tuesday on administering booster shots to the population most at risk from the coronavirus, he said.
A day earlier, the Sindh health department had decided to inoculate all residents with a booster shot of Pfizer keeping in view the increased risk of transmission and re-infection posed by Omicron.
Umar also said that restrictions had been placed on travellers coming from abroad and further measures would be taken to delay the variant's entry into the country.
Providing updates on the vaccination campaign so far, the minister said 50 million Pakistanis had been completely vaccinated, while 30m had been administered one dose.
Meanwhile, Dr Sultan explained why the new variant was being treated as a "variant of concern", saying it was "clear it is spreading faster compared to previous variants".
The danger this posed, he said, was of increased pressure on the healthcare system that could potentially lead to a shortage of beds and other medical services.
Sultan said an analysis of the variant's genetic makeup had shown numerous mutations. "It seems there are mutations in certain areas of the [virus] that have the potential of making it more dangerous or transmissible," he added.
Like Umar, the SAPM emphasised that despite restrictions and limitations in place, it was very difficult and "nearly impossible" to stop the variant's entry into the country due to the interconnected nature of the world.
Sultan also stressed the need to increase vaccinations to cover the unvaccinated sections of the population.
On Saturday, Pakistan had placed a complete ban on travel from six south African countries — South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia — and Hong Kong in the wake of the variant's discovery.
The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) said that travel from the aforesaid countries to Pakistan would be allowed "on extreme emergency", provided that the travellers obtained the required exemptions and followed the necessary health and testing protocols.
The NCOC also directed the Aviation Division, airport management, and the Airport Security Force to devise a mechanism for screening passengers travelling from the banned countries via indirect flights and share its details with all relevant departments by November 29.
The Omicron scare
The NCOC's decision to ban travel from the African nations followed similar decisions by a host of other countries wary of the spread of Omicron, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified as a "highly transmissible" variant of concern — the same category that includes the predominant Delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the US.
The new variant was first detected in South Africa last week, with scientists holding it responsible for a recent spike in Covid-19 infections in Gauteng, the country's most populous province.
The discovery of the strain sent a chill through much of the world on Friday as nations raced to halt air travel, markets fell sharply and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks, which were largely unknown.
The United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Russia, European Union nations and a host of other countries have restricted travel for visitors from southern Africa.
However, medical experts and bodies, including the WHO, have warned against any overreaction before the variant is better understood.