Like many countries around the world, Egypt has imposed travel restrictions in an attempt to fend off the spread of Omicron, the new Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa.
Ministry of Health Spokesperson Hossam Abdel-Ghaffar says that while no cases have been detected in Egypt, the new variant has been found in seven southern African countries and in Hong Kong, Israel, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, the UK, and Belgium. Japan and Israel have closed off their countries to all foreigners.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which designated the new variant as of international concern on 26 November, says it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more easily transmitted than other variants, including Delta.
Direct flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Eswatini have been temporarily suspended. Travellers indirectly arriving in Egypt from the seven countries will be tested at the airport before being allowed to enter the country, and in the event of a positive result will be required to leave on the first available return flight. Passengers who test negative will be allowed to enter, but will have to quarantine for seven days before taking a second test. Travellers transiting in Egypt will also be given PCR tests. If the results are positive, they will not be able to continue their trip but must return to the country of departure.
While hospitals across the country are on the highest alert, Abdel-Ghaffar denied the widely circulating rumour that a woman who tested positive for the new variant in Belgium contracted the infection in Egypt. While it is true that the Belgian tourist had visited Egypt, Abdel-Ghaffar pointed out that she left the country on 9 November and only began to develop symptoms on 22 November, 13 days later. On her return to Belgium she transited in Turkey, where she underwent a PCR test which was negative, and a week later took a second test which was also negative, confirming she could not have contracted the virus in Egypt.
Pulmonologist Khairiya Ebeid says it is unclear yet how the new variant will respond to current Covid-19 medication, and to what extent existing vaccines are effective against it. She explained that Omicron includes about 30 endogenous mutations and the virus’ spikes which attack human cells has changed. Since vaccines target these spikes, when changes occur they can impact on vaccine efficacy. Ebeid adds that no one yet knows the impact of the new variant, no one yet knows how to deal with it.
According to the WHO, common symptoms of the new Omicron variant include severe fatigue in patients of all age groups. Drastic drops in oxygen saturation levels have not been recorded, and patients have not reported a loss of taste or smell, hitherto common symptoms in Covid-19 cases. Omicron variant patients have, however, complained of scratchy throat.
Egypt was working to speed its vaccination programme before the emergence of the new strain. Its goal is to vaccinate 40 per cent of the population by end of 2021. So far 13 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, and around 23 million people have received a single dose. The vaccine rollout now includes 15 to 18 year olds, and this week was expanded to include children aged between 12 and 15.
The appearance of the new variant appears to fulfil predictions that the virus will quickly mutate in regions were vaccination rates are low and, as a result, rates of transmission are high, says Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a foundation that funds vaccine development. He noted that Botswana and South Africa have fully vaccinated less than a quarter of their populations.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.