Following the detection of the first local case of the Omicron variant in Laos, an investigation is now underway to identify the source of infection.
The joint Ministry of Health (MOH)-WHO team has conducted contact tracing and samples were collected from close contacts of the first case in Bolikhamxay Province.
On 23 February, twenty-seven of the samples collected from the village where the first Omicron case was detected, tested positive for COVID-19. These positive specimens have been sent to Institut Pasteur Du Lao for genetic sequencing to identify the variant. Contact tracing and specimen collection is also taking place in neighboring villages.
“While we wait for further information, I would like to remind everyone that the Omicron variant has been found to be more transmissible than previous variants, and stringent measures should be strictly followed, this includes isolating the positive cases and quarantining their close contacts to prevent further spread of community transmission” warned the Health Minister, Dr. Bounfeng Phoummalaysith.
Globally, the Omicron variant is now the dominant COVID-19 variant and has been detected in almost all countries. However, in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, we do not yet know if there is community transmission. Although local and central authorities are now responding to the situation, we encourage everyone to cooperate with health authorities, to get tested if they have symptoms or have been a close contact, and to isolate themselves immediately if suspecting infection until knowing negative result, test positive or do not feel well.
With the detection of the first local case of Omicron in Lao PDR, it is important to highlight what we do know at this stage about Omicron. We know it is more transmissible than previous variants and some studies have shown that there may be a more asymptomatic transmission with Omicron compared to other variants. It also has the ability to ‘evade immunity following infection and/or vaccination’ – this means that even if you are vaccinated or have previously been infected with COVID-19, you are still at risk of infection from Omicron and can transmit the virus.
Although infection with Omicron may be associated with a lower risk of hospitalization compared to infection with other variants such as Delta, the risk of severe illness increases for older people, for those with underlying medical conditions, and for people who are not yet vaccinated. However, evidence to date indicates that currently approved vaccines are still largely effective against severe disease, hospitalization, and death caused by infection with Omicron.
“This is a critical time for Lao PDR. We must continue to reach every community with vaccines to protect priority groups as soon as possible – especially healthcare workers and other essential workers, older and immunocompromised people, those with underlying conditions, at-risk groups in vulnerable settings, and hard-to-reach populations – and then the rest of the population. We also encourage people to continue to listen to local health advice and take measures to keep yourself, your loved ones and your community safe. These measures include: getting vaccinated, wearing a well-fitted mask, keeping physical distance, avoiding crowds and close contact; ventilation of indoor spaces; covering coughs and sneezes; cleaning hands frequently; and, if you develop symptoms or test positive, isolating until you recover,” said WHO Representative to Lao PDR, Dr. Ying-Ru Jacqueline Lo.
“These measures are also important for another reason – to protect our health system from becoming overwhelmed. In some countries that have experienced Omicron outbreaks, due to the very high number of cases, the number of people requiring hospital care has also increased, putting pressure on the healthcare systems. While we strongly encourage people to take individual protective measures, especially for those in high-risk categories, we ask for those with mild or no symptoms to isolate at home, to not only reduce the risk of wider community transmission but also to ensure that hospital beds and ICU beds are kept available for patients who need them most,” Dr. Lo added.