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Border, Not Omicron, Biggest Threat, But PCR Tests May Remain for Tourists

Coronavirus Covid-19 Omicron Variant

Thailand is keeping one eye on the new coronavirus Omicron variant, but the other clearly fixed on land borders.

While public health officials are urging the public not to panic, they also are taking steps to ensure the highly mutated variant stays outside the country.

Like many other nations, Thailand banned travelers from South Africa, where the variant originated, and seven other countries. It also is urging provincial officials to maintain strict preventive measures. At least one doctor is urging the government to delay the announced change from RT-PCR Covid-19 to antigen testing for arriving tourists in light of Omicron.

Dr. Opas Karnkawinpong, director-general of the Department of Disease Control, said all 1,007 visitors from southern Africa who recently arrived in Thailand have tested negative for Covid-19 bt are being kept in isolation as part of their “sandbox” entry.

According to the Department of Medical Sciences, Thailand has not detected the Omicron variant. All private hospitals are requested to submit specimens from all Covid-19 patients to be genetically sequenced to identify each individual’s strain and its prevalence.

The Public Health Ministry urged the public to stay calm amidst fears of the Omicron variant having been found in many countries, arguing that the real virus threat – from the older delta, beta and alpha variants – continues to be migrants sneaking or being smuggled across the border.

The coronavirus epidemic in Myanmar remains critical. Meanwhile, migrants are returning to Thailand for jobs, as many as 400,000 in coming weeks. Insufficient testing and quarantine could result in another outbreak among migrant workers that sparked Thaland’s second wave late last year.

Doctors are urging increased, active testing among all migrant workers and refugees.

Other medical experts are going farther. They want the government to drop its plans to switch from RT-PCR to antigen tests for arriving tourists, planned for Dec. 16.

Even though only 149 of 116,323 people – 0.13 percent – arriving in Thailand by air since Nov. 1 have tested positive for Covid-19 upon entry, conservative Chulalongkorn University Dr. Theera Warathanarat said a switch to less-reliable antigen tests could mean quick quick spread of Omicron when, not if, it arrives in Thailand.

He also proposed that anyone arriving from any country where even a single Omicron case has been found be required to quarantine for two weeks. That currently would include Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, the U.K., Netherlands and Israel.

However, even current PCR tests might not detect Omicron. Ramathibodi Hospital Centre for Medical Genomics said on its Facebook page Saturday that it used PCR test kits approved by the World Health Organization to test 115 Omicron samples and found “some PCR test kits may give weakly positive or false negative as the virus may have a growth advantage.”

The government last week imposed a total ban on arrivals from eight African countries including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi effective since Saturday.

Meanwhile, those who already have permission to enter Thailand must arrive before Dec. 15 and will be subject to state quarantine for 14 days and three Covid-19 tests.