New Omicron variant arrives, but worries are few
Korea confirmed its first case of the new Omicron variant XL on Tuesday, although authorities were quick to say they weren't concerned.
The XL variant was found in a man in his 40s in South Jeolla who received three inoculations and did not have any travel history. The man tested positive on March 23, his first-time infection, and didn’t experience any symptoms. He has been released from quarantine.
XL is a so-called recombinant variant, or a mix of the original BA.1 Omicron strain and the newer Stealth BA.2 mutation.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 66 cases of XL had been identified in Britain as of Sunday since its first detection in February. Medical experts don’t have enough evidence yet to draw conclusions about vaccine effectiveness against the variant or the severity of disease it causes.
After conducting genetic sequencing on 30,438 Covid-19 infection samples in the past month and identifying the first case of XL, health authorities are doing an epidemiological study of some 80 people including the patient’s relatives and people who came into contact with them.
“It is not yet clear whether the recombinant variant itself occurred in Korea or whether it was imported from abroad,” Lee Sang-won, head of the epidemiological investigations team at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, said in a press briefing on Tuesday.
Although Korea’s first XL patient did not travel abroad, Lee said authorities were looking into the possibility of the subvariant being imported from overseas as “the sequencing was found to be very similar to that detected in Britain.”
Currently in Korea, BA.1 and its sublineage BA.2 are spreading at the same time. BA.2, which quickly overtook BA.1 as the dominant strain, represented 85.2 percent of sequenced local cases, and 75 percent of sequenced imported cases.
Authorities believe that the emergence of a recombinant variant won’t have much impact in the country.
“The transmissibility increased slightly from BA.2, while there wasn't a significant increase in the severity,” Lee said. “Although caution is needed, we believe there is no need to be overly concerned.”
Lee added the emergence of XL will not affect the government's easing of social distancing restrictions.
"The new strain is not classified as a variant [of interest or concern], and we believe it won’t affect the current downturn of the Covid-19 wave in Korea,” he said. “It will have a limited impact on the current antivirus scheme and social distancing measures."
Health authorities are scheduled to announce a relaxation of social distancing rules this Friday.
While current social distancing measures ending Sunday include private gatherings capped at 10 people and a business curfew at midnight, Son Young-rae, senior epidemiological strategist at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, hinted in a TBS radio interview Tuesday that such limits will go away.
Regarding the new distancing scheme, Son said “the priority is [removing] the regulations that impose restrictions on [small businesses] or violate the people's right to freedom” such as limits on business hours, gathering sizes and large events.
Son hinted a lifting of the outdoor mask mandate will be made “around June to July,” along with the normalization of the medical system.
“If the current wave is stabilized well, the risk of a resurgence of another wave is considerably lowered,” Son said, forecasting that daily numbers of infections will fall to below 100,000 in May.
Korea’s daily Covid-19 cases rebounded to 210,755 Tuesday, more than double the day before, raising the total to 15,635,274. More than 30 percent of the population has been infected with the virus.
Tuesday’s figure was down 20.7 percent from last Tuesday, and 39.3 percent from two Tuesdays ago.
Hospitalized Covid-19 patients in critical condition went down 94 to total 1,005 as of Monday midnight.
A clear decline was seen in the number of Covid-19 fatalities.
The number of deaths fell to the 100s for the first time in 27 days with 171 deaths after hovering in the 200 to 300s in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, health authorities on Tuesday extended the period of accepting rapid antigen test results conducted at medical clinics or hospitals for official diagnosis of Covid-19 for another month, explaining “swift testing is needed as new infections are still high.”
The measure, which was set to end Wednesday, will remain in effect until May 13.
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