Omicron: WHO skip a letter in the Greek alphabet in naming the new variant?

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Omicron: WHO skip a letter in the Greek alphabet in naming the new variant?
© The Independent Singapore
Omicron: WHO skip a letter in the Greek alphabet in naming the new variant?
© The Independent Singapore

The long-awaited land travel reopening of Singapore starts tomorrow (Nov 29) at the Causeway with 1,440 bus passengers each way. At the same time, VTL by air quickens, with more countries being added to the list, as Changi airport comes to life again, together with more Singapore Airlines planes clearing their cobweb and blowing off the dust to take to the skies.
As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp usually says, “It’s all good”, in answering questions about the state of affairs at Anfield. Not quite yet, as far as the pandemic is concerned. There’s a potential curveball looming on the horizon — a worrying new variant.

Before we come to this variant of concern, B.1.1.529, to which the World Health Organisation has given yet another Greek alphabet name — Omicron — let’s talk a bit more about the reopening.

It is a start, but it is absolutely necessary because of the sheer number of people crisscrossing the Malaysia-Singapore border who are an intrinsic part of the Malaysian and Singaporean economies.

According to Wikipedia, in 2019 there were “952,261 Malaysians or Singaporeans of partial or full Malaysian origin residing in Singapore. In addition to the permanent population in the country, about 350,000 Malaysians crossed the Johor-Singapore Causeway daily to commute to work or school”. As of now, 100,000 Malaysians have been stuck in Singapore, still working for a living but missing their families and friends back home for two years.
Beyond Singapore-Johor, there were in the pre-Covid-19 years 30,500 flights carrying four million passengers between Changi and KLIA in 2017 to February 2018, making it the busiest air route in the world.

I would have been disappointed if for any reason, KL and Singapore had not, from the beginning, prioritised their win-win reopening over any others in their post-Covid-19 agenda.

If the first few weeks of revived border movements proved safe and smooth, a step up in numbers as we go along will make Johore Bahru once again a welcome escape from the island for many Singaporeans, particularly the heartland aunties and uncles who cannot afford to fly.
Trains and cars and the Second Link are next. The sooner the better. At the same time, the labour crunch in certain industries, e.g. F & B, should be considerably eased with the return of Malaysian workers.
As countries continue their vaccination drives, complete with boosters, and as people around the world do their self-test due diligence, the world should be back on its feet sooner than later. But it would require unremitting international cooperation — shown at our level by what has transpired between Singapore and Putrajaya in working out the cross-border protocols — to keep the virus at bay.
There is no other way. The not unexpected emergence of a new variant, with more to come surely, requires the best that world medical science has in its armoury and the fastest possible cooperative response to cope with every threat.
Professor Ooi Eng Eong, who does viral research at Duke-NUS Medical School, was quoted in a Straits Times article as saying, mutations are expected, so it is important “not to get paralysed by news on new variants”. We take it in stride.
This strain was first detected in South Africa on Nov 11, and has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, according to the article. It has 32 mutations in the spike protein — about double that of the Delta strain, which now dominates Covid-19 infections around the world. Spike proteins are the target of most vaccines, as they are what the virus needs to enter the body’s cells.
It is serious enough to warrant the attention of the World Health Organisation.
I offer an afterthought of how small the world is and how important it is not to act unthinkingly if we want to get everyone on board in the battle against existential threats to human life.

Someone sent an Internet posting on the Greek alphabet and noted: “Guess which letter in the Greek alphabet WHO skips before naming the new variant Omicron? Better to let it sound like the name of a French resident than you-know-who.”

The letter before Omicron is Xi.


Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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