The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the two newly-flagged variants of SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – formally known as B.1.640 and B.1.1.529 (Omicron) could possibly reach Cambodia soon. The Ministry of Health has also urged public vigilance ahead of its potential arrival.

“There is high risk that Omicron will be imported and soon found in Cambodian communities in this highly interconnected world,” said the WHO Representative’s Office in a press statement on November 27.

It said Omicron is worrying because it has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests increased transmissibility and an increased risk of re-infection by this variant, as compared to other strains of concern.

In South Africa in particular, Omicron has grown as a percentage of cases detected at a faster rate than previous surges in infections even from the Delta variant, suggesting that Omicron may be more transmissible and able to infect people more easily.

“We do not know about the current vaccines effectiveness on this variant. Researchers are looking into potential impacts its mutations have on vaccines and other tools. They are also working to understand more about the mutations and what they potentially mean for how virulent this variant is,” it said.

The only positive news regarding this new strain is that it can be detected through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) diagnostics which enable the tracking of its spread.

“Cambodia should be concerned about the newly detected variant of concern Omicron despite the country’s high Covid-19 vaccination coverage,” said Li Ailan, WHO representative to Cambodia. “Everyone should be ready for a possible surge and we should continue to learn and adjust our response measures.”

“The most effective way to protect yourself, your loved ones and the Cambodian community at large is to continue effective public health and social measures. Cambodia’s ‘three dos and three don’ts’ guidelines remain crucial,” said the press release.

Health ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine first cautioned the public about a potential threat to the Kingdom from the two variants on November 27.

She noted that B.1.640 was first reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. European and British health authorities have classified the strain as a “variant under monitoring”, which indicates that it could pose a risk but evidence of phenotypic or epidemiological consequences remains inconclusive.

B.1.1.529 was first reported in South Africa on November 24 with the earliest sample testing positive for it there dating to November 9. It was then detected in neighbouring Botswana and then in Hong Kong in a traveller arriving from South Africa.

There are also reports of suspected cases in the UK, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Israel.

The ministry’s Vandine noted that scientists are voicing concern over the transmissibility of Omicron and the high number of mutations on its spike proteins which could help the virus evade immune and antibody responses induced by Covid-19 vaccines.

“The WHO is monitoring its behaviour to see how easily it can be transmitted, how much damage it could cause and its implications for our antibodies,” she said.

She called on the public to increase their level of vigilance, reasoning that the strain could potentially be brought into Cambodia by travellers.

“When there are people coming in from everywhere, the possibility of transmission exists,” she said. “We must remain extremely cautious and vigilant at all times.”

She urged the public to avoid crowded places and follow the other “three do’s and three don’ts” guidelines, pointing out that the Kingdom is moving towards living with an endemic Covid-19 in the “new normal”.

The “three dos” are to wear a face mask, wash hands frequently and keep a safe distance of at least 1.5m from other people. The “three don’ts” are to avoid confined and enclosed spaces, stay away from crowded places and refrain from touching others.

“Please don’t forget, don’t panic and don’t be too reckless. Everyone has to be responsible for their own health and that of their families and communities and hold fast to the ‘three do’s and three don’ts’ in order to make our return to the ‘new normal’ sustainable in the long-term,” she said.