By Low De Wei and Philip J. Heijmans
(Bloomberg) — Singapore’s world-leading pivot away from Covid Zero is being watched closely as the omicron variant roils global markets. So far, the country has refrained from reversing course on its gradual border reopening, and experts say it has time to wait before pushing the panic button.
Instead of joining Japan and Israel in slamming borders shut again to foreigners, Singapore kept its existing vaccinated travel lanes open, choosing instead to step up testing for travellers and pause further easing of travel and social curbs.
“There is no evidence that this variant should cause panic or require substantially different procedures to manage and contain,” said Ashley St. John, an associate professor of immunology at Duke-NUS Medical School. “I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that omicron can be contained easily. It is likely to spread substantially in the world in spite of many measures including testing and restricted movement.”
Key to Singapore’s ability to hold off on immediate drastic curbs is one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, efforts to protect its healthcare system from surges in infection, and its already measured reopening pace, experts say. The Southeast Asian economy, which is highly reliant on trade and transport, shifted to a strategy of living with the virus when the highly transmissible delta variant made Covid elimination all but impossible. It was the first to do so among a few Asia-Pacific jurisdictions that had previously tried to wall off the virus.
“Closing of borders, particularly in places with high rates of vaccination, is unnecessary,” said Ooi Eng Eong, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the Duke-NUS Medical School. “I suspect that omicron has already spread to many places undetected. If omicron is as transmissible as delta, then closing borders would only delay the inevitable virus introduction.”
Vaccination is still the best defence, Ooi added, because even if there is some reduction in effectiveness against an omicron infection, immunisation would very likely still prevent the infection from progressing to become severe Covid.
With more than 85% of its population fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and new infections stabilised, Singapore recently allowed people from different households to dine together in groups of 5 at restaurants. It had also gradually extended its vaccinated travel lane program to more countries before delaying those with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as a precaution amid concern about omicron.
“If omicron comes, it comes,” said Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, who believes it’s unlikely the variant would test the resolve of Singapore’s government much. “The decision on whether or not to close up depends on hospital capacity and the Covid-19 treatment facilities have boosted them tremendously.”
Still, authorities in Singapore seem to be taking no chances, Leong said referring to a decision by the nation on Tuesday to ramp up testing at its border. With high rates of vaccination, Singapore should be able to withstand the new variant relatively well, judging by the experience of similarly well inoculated Portugal where omicron has emerged, he said.
To be sure, much remains unknown about omicron, and Singapore has signalled it will tighten up if it needs to. Health Minister Ong Ye Kung compared the situation to a game of snakes and ladders — if the variant turns out to be worse than past ones then there will be significant setbacks in the pandemic fight, but if it’s more infectious yet milder and less harmful, “it is actually a positive development. We will ladder up towards living with Covid-19,” he said on Facebook.
“In the meantime, we should take a prudent approach and implement appropriate measures to contain omicron, not let it establish itself in our community, while we find out more” in the coming weeks, Ong said at a briefing Tuesday. “When we learn more about it, I am confident we will learn to live with omicron, just like how we learnt to live with delta.”
© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.