What are Asian countries doing to halt the rise of the COVID-19 omicron variant?

The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing global pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). In the past two years, several variants have emerged that are spreading globally, with the most recent one known as the Omicron variant. With the most recent lessons learnt from the Delta variant, many countries, including several Asian countries, are acting quickly to curb the spread.

It was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24th November 2021. On 26th November, the World Health Organisation declared it as a variant of concern due to its highly transmissible nature. In recent weeks, the Omicron variant has been linked to a surge in COVID cases in South Africa. Many Asian countries have implemented both border controls and internal restrictions to curb its transmission. Let’s take a look at what the different Asian countries have implemented so far in view of the COVID-19 omicron variant.


Border restrictions

Prior to the discovery of Omicron variant, Singapore has opened a quarantine-free travel scheme known as ‘Vaccinate Travel Lanes (VTL)’, which allowed vaccinated citizens from the following countries via air: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

From 2nd December 23:59 SGT, travellers entering Singapore will be required to provide result of their pre-departure Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test and undergo another PCR test on arrival. In addition, there will be supervised COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Tests (ART) on Days 3 and 7 of arrival. From 6th December 23:59 SGT, travellers entering Singapore will be required to undergo home COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Tests (ART) on Days 2, 4, 5 and 6 of arrival. This is in addition to the PCR tests and supervised ART tests on Days 3 and 7. 

PCR tests can determine the specific variant with which a person is infected with. For Omicron variant patients, they will be required to quarantine and undergo treatment at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID). Close contacts of these cases will be required to quarantine in designated facilities instead of their homes. So far, Singapore has confirmed 3 Omicron cases, all of which were imported. 

Internal restrictions 

Internal social restrictions have been updated on 22nd November. It broadly includes limitations on social gatherings, entertainment venues and compulsory mask wearing. For a full list of all restrictions, click here


Border restrictions

Malaysia has temporarily banned the entry of travellers from countries that have reported the COVID-19 Omicron variant or are considered high-risk. It detected its first case in a foreign student arriving from South Africa. The travel ban applies to eight African countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, but could be extended to other nations where the variant has been detected and spread locally. It reimposed quarantine requirements for Malaysian citizens and long-term residents returning from the above list of countries. This is a major setback for Malaysia as it has planned to gradually open its border to foreign visitors. 

Internal restrictions

Malaysia has lifted interstate travel restrictions for fully vaccinated citizens. The government has shifted into an endemic COVID-19 phase during which, they mentioned they will not impose wide lockdowns if cases rise. The emergence of the Omicron variant has not changed government position as of now. 


Border restrictions

Since March 2020, China has closed its borders for pretty much all foreign visitors. Omicron did not make a difference to the current border restriction. However, travellers can apply for special visa under either business or humanitarian conditions. As of now, China did not announce any Omicron case.

Depending on provinces of arrival, in general, travellers will be quarantined for 14 days at designated hotels or purposely built facilities, followed by 7-14 days of home quarantine. Multiple COVID tests are administered during the quarantine period.  

Internal restrictions 

There is virtually no COVID related restrictions in China other than regions with active COVID transmission. As of 9th December, the only region with cluster transmission is Inner Mongolia. 


Border restrictions 

Overall, Japan has taken the most drastic border measure in Asia to curb the transmission of Omicron variant. On 30th November, Japan tested its first Omicron case. Soon after. It suspended all foreign national entry for a month up till 30th December unless otherwise exempted. Validity of visas already issued by 2nd December are suspended unless otherwise exempted. 

Under the new restriction, Japanese nationals can still enter the country. All cross-border travellers need to submit a negative result of COVID-19 tests conducted within 3 days prior to departure. They are required to receive the COVID-19 test at the time of entry, and to stay 14 days at a designated location (own residence etc). 

As of 9th December, Japan has announced 4 Omicron cases, all imported from overseas. 

Internal restrictions

From 30th November, all passengers of a flight (both domestic and international) carrying an omicron-positive individual will be deemed close contacts. Previously, only people sitting in the same row, or two rows immediately in front and behind have been regarded as close contacts. 

Close contacts of Omicron patients must undergo PCR test every two days and self-isolate for 14 days at designated accommodation facilities. 

South Korea

Border restrictions

On 1st December, South Korea reported its first Omicron infection, and subsequently announced a tightening of travel restrictions, including suspending direct flights to Ethiopia for 2 weeks. 

From 3rd December, all arrivals will be required to get tested at the airport on entry, and quarantine for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status. Previously, exemptions have been granted for fully vaccinated Korean nationals. Visas will no longer be issued to eight south African countries, along with Ethiopia. 

Internal restrictions

South Korea has imposed stricter rules to contain growing COVID infections and the Omicron variant.  It has put on hold previous efforts to “live with COVID-19”, instead imposing a new vaccine pass system. South Koreans with a valid vaccine certificate can visit restaurants and other entertainment venues. However, foreign residents vaccinated overseas are barred from restaurants, cafes and cinemas. So far, no domestic travel restriction has been announced.

Watch what the experts from Singapore, Dr Leong Hoe Nam and Dr Ling Li Min, have to say about the omicron variant, in an exclusive interview with Medical Channel Asia:

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