Omicron is in Sri Lanka.   “Don’t panic. Vaccines work. Get vaccinated to prevent hospitalization, severe disease and death and take all preventive measures,” is the advice of Prof. Neelika Malavige. It is Prof. Malavige’s team that worked exhaustively night and day to perform genetic sequencing in over two days and alerted the Health Ministry on [...]


Omicron is here; but don’t panic, says top expert

Get vaccinated, get the booster and strictly adhere to COVID health guidelines

Omicron is in Sri Lanka.  

“Don’t panic. Vaccines work. Get vaccinated to prevent hospitalization, severe disease and death and take all preventive measures,” is the advice of Prof. Neelika Malavige.

It is Prof. Malavige’s team that worked exhaustively night and day to perform genetic sequencing in over two days and alerted the Health Ministry on Friday morning that Omicron has arrived in the country.

“Ninety-six test samples can be loaded for a run of the sequencing machine. The samples we sequenced had been collected in the two weeks preceding Tuesday and included those from the airport and areas such as Colombo, Gampaha, Jaffna, Nuwara Eliya and the south”, Prof. Malavige, Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, told the Sunday Times.

The sequencing revealed that a sample from the airport was infected with Omicron, she said, adding that the infection in all other samples was by Delta.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Omicron a ‘Variant of Concern’ on November 26, joining four others – Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

Prof. Malavige explained that based on the numerous mutations found in Omicron, there are concerns of possible higher transmissibility than other variants and also possible evasion of both natural infection and vaccine immunity. These concerns – that vaccines may be less effective in preventing symptomatic infection – are based on mutations alone.

“However, we should not become kalabala (frantic). More in-depth studies are needed to ascertain that and such studies are being conducted by many countries. There is strong data, meanwhile, to show that irrespective of whatever variant assails us, vaccinations significantly prevent hospitalization, severe disease and death,” she said.

Both doses of a vaccine increase immunity against variants, while a booster would further boost the immunity, says this expert, adding that like other countries, which have changed their protocols now, it may be good to vaccinate all those over 18 years of age. These countries are also reducing the gap between the 2nd dose and the booster, from six months to three months on the grounds of getting the “highest immunity level possible in the shortest duration”.

Giving the backdrop, she said that although South Africa initially reported Omicron, when other countries began looking for it actively, it has now been detected in 26 countries including several in Europe. It has been spreading in countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom in the past weeks because they have found positive cases with no links to travel. The WHO and scientists suspect that this variant has been circulating for at least 30 days.

When asked the meaning of one widely used RT-PCR test not detecting one of the three target genes of the virus, Prof. Malavige said that this is called the ‘S’ gene dropout or ‘S’ gene target failure. This means that the RT-PCR is not amplifying the ‘S’ gene or is dropping the ‘S’ gene and is an indication that the sample could be infected by the Omicron variant. Such a sample, however, needs to be sequenced to confirm whether it is Omicron or not.

With reports emerging that the ‘trigger’ for blood clots in some people who have taken the AstraZeneca vaccine has been uncovered, she added that the vaccine uses an adenovirus base on which is the spike protein. It has been found that in some people who take the vaccine, the adenovirus binds with their platelet proteins, triggering clotting.

Felicitating Prof. Neelika Malavige

The Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum of Sri Lanka felicitated Prof. Neelika Malavige on November 27.

The appreciation came for the “globally recognized service she has rendered to medicine and in particular research on COVID-19 and dengue and her appointment to the WHO Technical Advisory Group on scientific, technical and strategic matters related to the COVID-19 technology access pool”.


 Take the booster, urges SLMAAll those over 60 years of age should get the booster dose of Pfizer and those who have not taken both doses of vaccines which were offered earlier should do so promptly to protect themselves from COVID-19, the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) and the Inter-Collegiate Committee have urged.

The SLMA has also requested all frontline healthcare workers to complete their vaccination schedule and get the booster as well.

This recommendation comes as Sri Lanka faces the season and the possibility of a high risk of infection with gatherings along with a possible transmission of the Omicron variant.

While appreciating the immediate measures taken by the Health Ministry to ban flights from six southern African countries and strengthen quarantine regulations against travellers from those countries over the risk posed by Omicron, the SLMA states that now there is evidence that the variant has spread further.

“Several European countries, Australia and the United States of America have detected cases. As such, there is a very high risk of Omicron entering Sri Lanka through travellers from any country. Therefore, the SLMA and the Inter-Collegiate Committee requests the government to conduct RT-PCR testing on all arrivals before they enter,” it states.

Health authorities tracing contacts of returnee infected with Omicron

A 25-year-old unvaccinated woman who came to Sri Lanka on November 24 from Nigeria, a West African country, was found to be positive through RT-PCR testing at the airport. She was sent to a COVID-19 treatment centre and discharged on December 2, said the Health Ministry’s Head of the Disaster Preparedness and Response Division, Dr. Hemantha Herath on Friday.

He told the media briefing held at the Health Promotion Bureau that the test sample when sequenced showed the infection to be due to Omicron, the results of which came on Friday morning. The woman had been discharged from the treatment centre by that time.

The health authorities have taken all steps to trace the contacts of this woman from Puttalam after she left the treatment centre, he said.

When asked whether there are plans to impose quarantine on all those arriving in the country, he said no decision has been taken yet. The pros and cons are being weighed and the technical merits and demerits.

Under the current guidelines, unvaccinated arrivals have to undergo RT-PCR testing at the airport and are sent to a treatment centre until the results come. If they test positive they are sent to their homes, a hospital (if symptomatic) or an intermediate care centre (ICC) for isolation. The unvaccinated, even if not positive, have to undergo either home quarantine or quarantine at a state centre. Vaccinated arrivals walk out without being tested.

On November 26, the Health Ministry banned all arrivals from the southern African countries of South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Eswatini (Swaziland) as of midnight November 27.

Earlier on Friday morning, ministry officials said that all those who returned from these countries during the past month are in the database and they would test them. They are also following up on passengers who were seated close to her on the flight.

When asked about plans to give the booster to all those above 20, Dr. Herath said Sri Lanka has received over 35 million vaccine doses and administered 30 million doses.

“We are expecting a fairly large stock and we will expand the rollout of the booster gradually,” he added.

WHO initiates international accord on pandemics to get the ‘World Together’

A sole decision titled ‘The World Together’ was adopted at a Special Session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) last week against the background of the newest variant of concern (VOC), Omicron.

This Special session convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) is only the second, since its founding in 1948.

Calling on the critical need to strengthen global health architecture, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the many flaws in the global system to protect people from pandemics: the most vulnerable people going without vaccines; health workers without needed equipment to perform their life-saving work; and ‘me-first’ approaches that stymie the global solidarity needed to deal with a global threat.

He said that “… the same time, we have seen inspiring demonstrations of scientific and political collaboration, from the rapid development of vaccines, to today’s commitment by countries to negotiate a global accord that will help to keep future generations safer from the impacts of pandemics”.

The decision by the WHA establishes an intergovernmental negotiating body (INB) to draft and negotiate a WHO convention, agreement or other international instruments on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, with a view to adopting this under provisions of the WHO Constitution.

Under this decision, the INB will hold its:   

First meeting by 1 March 2022 – to agree on ways of working and timelines

Second meeting by 1 August 2022 – to discuss progress on a working draft.

The INB will also hold public hearings to inform its deliberations; deliver a progress report to the 76th WHA in 2023; and submit its outcome for consideration by the 77th WHA in 2024.

Article 19 of the WHO Constitution provides the WHA with the authority to adopt agreements on any matter within WHO’s competence. The sole instrument established so far is the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005.

Sri Lanka was one of the first of the 182 countries to ratify the treaty with significant success in tobacco control as an important strategy to address non-communicable diseases. The latest available data (2015), show that Sri Lanka was among the countries with the lowest prevalence with regard to cigarette use in the 13-15 age group (1.5%).

Acknowledging the need for an agreement on pandemics, the Director General of Health Services, Dr Asela Gunawardena noted that the International Health Regulations (the current legally binding instrument for public health emergencies of international concerns) have room for further improvement.

The Sri Lankan government would support WHO in its efforts to combat future health emergencies including pandemics, assured Dr Gunawardena who represented Sri Lanka at the meeting in Geneva.

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