Asia Has Kept COVID-19 at Bay for 2 Years. Omicron Could Change That
Omicron, a variant of COVID-19 that was released this autumn, saw governments from East and Southeast Asia return to their tried-and-true strategy for stopping it. They increased the number of border restrictions. Japan banned entry for nearly all foreigners—including students who had already been admitted to universities. Foreign nationals from Omicron-affiliated countries were prohibited from entering the Philippines. Thailand has ended all programs that permitted tourists to travel without being quarantined.
However, border closings didn’t stop Omicron from arriving. Spiking infections are being reported in multiple countries throughout Asia. Japan’s COVID-19 cases hit 20,000 a day, approaching the record tallies caused by the Delta variant in August. In the Philippines, daily case totals hit nearly 37,000—almost double previous highs in September. Although COVID-19 case numbers in Singapore and Indonesia are on the rise, they have not yet risen.
Borders across the region are still heavily restricted even though it is the third anniversary of the COVID-19 epidemic. But many experts question whether continuing to stay closed to tourists, students and business travelers is an effective strategy for reducing COVID-19 now that Omicron has taken over—given the evidence that it is more contagious, though potentially with less severe symptoms.
“There’s very little [effect] that border closure and all that would have in terms of the impact in preventing the introduction of Omicron into various countries,” says Dr. Ooi Eng Eong, an infectious disease expert from the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School. “This is how a very infectious virus will spread, but there’s actually very little that we can do to prevent it, except for vaccinating populations.”
Asia’s success is a testament to its resilience
Asia’s COVID-19 strategies—border closures, quarantine requirements, a pervasive mask-wearing culture, coupled with vaccination campaigns—have worked extremely well so far. Japan has suffered 15 deaths per 100 000 people from the Delta virus, while South Korea’s has 12 per 100,000. Hong Kong, which has continued to pursue a “zero COVID” strategy of eliminating all infections, has reported fewer than 13,000 cases across its 7.5 million people, and its death rate is 3 per 100,000 people. In mainland China, where COVID-19 was first detected, just 4,600 deaths have been reported among 1.4 billion people—a death rate close to zero. In contrast, 259People have been killed in America per 100,000. Germany’s death rate is 139, which has been praised by large European countries for handling COVID-19.
In countries with high vaccination rates—like Japan, where nearly 80% of the population is fully vaccinated—experts expect deaths to remain low during the Omicron wave, even if infections spike significantly higher than in previous waves. “The number of infections per capita in Japan remains low compared to Europe and the United States—this may be evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines, masks, and social distancing,” Taro Yamamoto (a Nagasaki University Professor of International Health) says.
Hong Kong, however, is not taking any chances. The city’s COVID-19 entry restrictions were already some of the tightest in the world, including mandatory 21-day quarantine for most travelers. It took just a handful of Omicron infections in the community—believed to have originated from two Cathay Pacific Airways flight attendants who were later fired and then arrested—for borders to close even tighter. The financial hub, which once boasted one of the world’s 10 busiest airports, has now banned all flights from eight countries including the U.S. and the U.K. and also barred travelers from more than 150 countries and territories from taking connecting flights through the city.
There have been less than 100 Omicron infections in the city. Yet just five days into 2022, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced social distancing restrictions reminiscent of those imposed in 2020—the closure of gyms, spas and other businesses that require close contact between customers and providers; strict limits on the number of people who can gather in public; and a 6 p.m. curfew for restaurant dining. Nearly 3,000 infected travelers are currently being detained at the government quarantine facility outside Hong Kong Disneyland.
Assessing the cost of closing borders
The Chinese territory’s zero tolerance for COVID-19 cases is motivated at least in part by Beijing’s requirements for reopening the border with mainland China—which has itself enacted aggressive lockdowns, testing and tracking to keep out COVID-19.
However, these border closings had a price. The three-week quarantine that Hong Kong endured hampered its position as an international tourist hub and destination. International tourism is a major contributor to Thailand’s economy, which shrank by 6% in 2020, according to the World Bank, and was estimated to increase by only 1% in 2021. Asia’s tourism-dependent industries were the worst affected. Lee Kyusung (a South Korean bartender) said that he had seen fewer of his expatriate clients, which made up approximately 40% of his regular customers.
Some countries like Singapore have opened borders to allow travelers who have been vaccinated from other nations, but most others have placed restrictions on all travelers, regardless of their vaccination status. That’s because growing evidence shows that current vaccines are less effective at stopping the spread of Omicron than of previous variants. They still prevent severe COVID-19, which can lead to death.
This is the The good—and bad—news about vaccines
Complicating matters, a small-scale study suggests one of the most common vaccines in the region could be especially ineffective at stopping Omicron’s transmission. The Laboratory study conducted by scientists from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong UniversityIn November, blood samples were taken from 25 people who had been vaccinated by two doses of flu shot. CoronaVac—an inactivated vaccine made by China’s Sinovac. The Omicron-resistant variant was stopped by the test results. It discovered that none of the tested samples had enough neutralizing antibodies. Only five of the 25 Pfizer BioNTech mRNA vaccination samples had enough antibodies. (More neutralizing antibodies levels More protection is expected to be provided by these productsFor symptomatic COVID-19.
Sinovac’s shot is one of the two vaccines widely used in China, where 2.9 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered. This vaccine is the most widely used in Indonesia. It was imported from China in more than 50 million doses to the Philippines.
Leo Poon of University of Hong Kong says policymakers need to consider data from other countries. This shows that Omicron surges will likely put less strain on healthcare systems if there is a high level of vaccination. “I think that that is good news, and this is the most important message,” he says. “Everyone has to understand that.”
For countries with high vaccination rates, like Japan, many infectious disease experts are saying it’s time for politicians to drop tough restrictions on international travel. “Japan’s approach to border control—shutting down borders—does not make sense any more,” says Kenji Shibuya, Research Director of the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research. “I think that it is a political gesture.”
It isn’t possible for every country to afford this luxury. The fourth largest country, Indonesia, only 43% has had their 274 million inhabitants fully immunized, according to World Health Organization data. The Philippines’ vaccination rate is 47%. It is only 30% in Myanmar, a country that has been ravaged by conflict.
“We need to try to help these people,” Poon says. He appeals to countries with surplus jabs to do more: “If you have vaccines, then please make them available to other people.”