The World Health Organization  said on Saturday southeast Asian countries must scale up surveillance, strengthen health and social measures and enhance vaccination coverage as several countries across the world rushed to contain omicron, a new variant of the coronavirus that has the potential to be more resistant to vaccines.

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO’s regional director of the southeast Asia region, said they should assess the risk of importation through international travel and take measures accordingly against omicron.

The global health body has levelled omicron as a variant of concern because of its high number of mutations and some early evidence that it carries a higher degree of infection than other variants.

Khetrapal Singh said countries must enhance surveillance and sequencing and continue comprehensive and tailored public health and social measures to prevent transmission.

“As of today 31 % of the Region’s population is fully vaccinated, 21% partially vaccinated while nearly 48% or about a billion people are yet to receive even a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said.

People must wear a mask covering their nose and mouth, keep a safe distance, avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces, keep hands clean, cover cough and sneeze and get vaccinated to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Everyone must continue to take precautions even after getting vaccinated to prevent becoming infected and to infect someone else who may get severely affected by the coronavirus.

Several countries, including the United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada Iran, Japan and Thailand, the European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed restrictions on southern African countries in response to the discovery of omicron.

Cases have been reported in travellers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, and Germany also has said there could be a probable omicron infection. Dutch authorities are checking for omicron after 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa tested positive for Covid-19.

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