Little is known about the potential dangers posed by the Omicron coronavirus variant but concern over its spread is already threatening to wreck reopening plans in Asia-Pacific.
After more than 20 months of strict border controls and restrictions on daily life, many countries in the region had tentatively started to loosen up and live with Covid – months after their European and North American counterparts fully reopened.
But it took only a matter of days to change that.
Last month, after South African scientists detected a new variant, dozens of nations imposed travel bans on visitors from several southern African countries. Some countries in Asia-Pacific have gone further by extending mandatory quarantines or shutting their borders to almost all foreign travelers.
Scientists in the United States say it will take at least two weeks to know more about how the variant impacts vaccine efficacy and Covid treatments. As public health experts wait for the data, governments across the Asia-Pacific region aren’t taking any risks. Many are acting quickly over concerns the new Omicron variant could spread into their territories, even in places with already-strict border rules or high vaccination rates.
Experts say that’s understandable. But, they say countries may need to adjust their expectations of what living with Covid looks like and improve vaccine equity as the virus becomes endemic.
“Initially, we thought we lived in this black and white world in terms of the possibility of living with Covid or without it, but that choice is kind of going away with it becoming endemic,” said Renu Singh, research assistant professor with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who works on the politics of public health during Covid-19.
Some countries in Asia delay reopening
In one of the strongest reactions to Omicron, Japan shut its borders to almost all non-citizens, including international students, business travelers and people visiting family.
Japan initially asked all airlines to suspend reservations – potentially stranding Japanese citizens overseas – but later rescinded the request after complaints. Japanese citizens and foreign residents with a reentry permit are still generally allowed to reenter Japan, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though they will have to complete mandatory government quarantines from certain countries.
The new rules come just weeks after Japan showed signs of opening up, reducing its mandatory quarantine for vaccinated business travelers from 10 days to three and dropping a curfew on bars and restaurants in the capital, Tokyo.
And Japan isn’t the only Asia-Pacific country rolling back plans to ease restrictions.
Australia – which began reopening a month ago after more than a year of tough border controls – has delayed plans to allow migrants and international students into the country for two weeks over Omicron concerns. It has also banned visitors from several southern African countries. In addition, some state governments are once again requiring international and inter-state travelers to quarantine.
Even countries that relied on tourism and whose economies and people suffered badly as tourism dollars dried up are putting reopening plans on hold. The Philippines, for example, temporarily suspended its plans to allow fully vaccinated international travelers to enter the country in response to Omicron.
Dr. Jason Wang, a professor of pediatrics and health policy at Stanford University, said reopening is a “dynamic process” that may require countries to adjust their policies quickly.
“What the pandemic has taught us is to balance lives and livelihoods. It’s like the heart, we need both systole (contract) and diastole (relax) to keep the heart pumping. Governments need to apply restrictions when cases go up quickly, but can relax when infection rate goes down,” Wang said.
“The goal is to minimize the risk of infectious spread while allowing travel,” he said. “We now have many finer tools to fight the pandemic. Travel ban is a big gun that should be used temporarily, not in the long run.”
Others wait and see
One country not making major changes amid the Omicron scramble is China, likely due to the fact its travel restrictions are already extremely tight with few foreigners able to enter the country. Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease expert in Shanghai, said the new variant would have “no major impact on China at this time.”
Singapore, which was one of the first countries in Asia Pacific to announce a blueprint for living with Covid, also appears to be taking a wait and see approach.
Though the city-state banned all travelers from seven southern African nations, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung has compared Singapore’s post-Omicron situation to a game of Snakes and Ladders.
“If Omicron is more infectious, more harmful and vaccines do not work well against it, then we have stepped on the snake square, and we will go down, which will set us back a long way,” said Ong, adding that if Omicron is more infectious, but the symptoms are milder, the city-state will “maybe even take a leap forward in our transition to living with Covid-19.”
Finance Minster Lawrence Wong said on December 1 that while border restrictions are Singapore’s first line of defense, the city-state couldn’t rely solely on them so it would focus on ramping up vaccines boosters, among other measures.
Thailand, which dropped lengthy quarantines and reopened its borders to fully vaccinated international travelers from eligible countries on November 1, also said it would not step back from reopening plans – despite also restricting travelers from several southern African countries.
“Nobody wants another border closure as it was really difficult for us to reopen the country,” Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said, according to the Bangkok Post. “Our economy still suffers from the crisis, so there will be no more border seals unless we are in a very critical situation.”
What the future holds
Right now, public health expert Singh said countries are in a “fog of war,” where there is much uncertainty over the Omicron variant and they don’t want to be caught off guard if it evades vaccines or causes serious illness.
“In a pandemic, there is going to be uncertainty, but hyping up a variant overly so to the point that you may take an economic hit that you didn’t need to is also risky. It’s risky for the economy, it’s risky for people,” Singh said.
But on the other hand, ‘Freedom Day’ type lifting of restrictions is “imprudent,” said Jeremy Lim, associate professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore (NUS).
“Phased in, progressive relaxation is the only way to go, tracking very carefully vaccination and booster rates, especially amongst at risk populations, hospital capacity and case counts.”
That’s what South Korea is trying to balance. The country eased restrictions on November 1 with the goal to “recover to normal life” – but the reopening coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases and record number of critical Covid patients.
On Friday, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said South Korea will toughen some of its virus control measures, including limiting gatherings and mandating Covid tests and vaccines to enter restaurants and cafes. More than 83% of the population have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, and 80.5% of the population are fully vaccinated. South Korean authorities also moved to ban travelers from eight southern African countries.
Kwon Joon-wook, Director of South Korea’s National Institute of Health, told CNN the country was trying to boost vaccine rates further and work on booster shots, as well as a locally-made vaccine that would reduce the need to rely on vaccine imports.
But, he said, patents on mRNA vaccines were blocking progress on using homegrown vaccines.
The world could form immunity “together in a short time by delaying the vaccine patent period for a certain period of time and mass produce vaccines in countries that are capable of manufacturing to overcome the crisis,” Kwon said.
That’s the rub, said Singh.
“Border control is just one piece,” she said.”If we really want to see the end of these bans, and some more certainty, at least in terms of what the ups and downs could be, vaccinations are the key. And getting them to everyone is also important.”
“How do we end this? How do we stop having this conversation? I really think it’s about vaccines. I really think it’s about vaccine equity.”
CNN’s Paula Hancocks and Gawon Bae in Seoul, Junko Ogura in Tokyo, and Cheryl Ho and Lizzy Yee in Hong Kong contributed.