The World Health Organization (WHO) 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.
"Though Covid-19 cases have been declining in most countries of our Region, the surge in cases elsewhere in the world and confirmation of a new Variant of Concern, is a reminder of the persisting risk and the need for us to continue to do our best to protect against the virus and prevent its spread," Khetrapal Singh said in a statement.
"At no cost should we let our guards down," she said.
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.
"The more Covid-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus will have to change and mutate, and the pandemic will last longer," 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.
"As of today 31 per cent 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.
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.
"We must not forget that the pandemic is far from over. As societies open up, we should not get complacent. Festivities and celebrations must include all precautionary measures. Crowds and large gatherings must be avoided. The current situation warrants further stepping up efforts on all fronts," the Regional Director said.
Also read | Omicron Covid variant: What do we know about risks, symptoms, tests
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.
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.