Omicron variant unignorable: CDC Vietnam country director

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Omicron variant unignorable: CDC Vietnam country director

Eric Dziuban is seen in a photo provided by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Eric Dziuban, country director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vietnam, had a talk with Tuoi Tre News on solutions to effectively respond to the Omicron variant and the COVID-19 pandemic in general.

Omicron has now been found in over 110 countries and territories, with health experts stating it appears to be more contagious but less virulent than previous strains.

In Vietnam, a total of 30 imported Omicron cases have been recorded, including 11 in Ho Chi Minh City, 14 in Quang Nam, two in Thanh Hoa, and one each in Hai Duong, Hai Phong, and Hanoi.

Though Omicron is supposed to be less severe than previous strains, Dziuban said that it is impossible to ignore this mutant, which was designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a variant of concern on November 26, 2021, two days after it was first reported to WHO by South Africa.

In your point of view, is an “open and shut” process due to the COVID-19 pandemic a part of the new normal?

Nobody can say exactly what the new normal will look like. Different parts of the government and the society are trying to create systems that will allow us to do as many of the important activities as we can while also protecting our health systems to serve the people who need them.

At the moment, the pandemic continues to change as the virus evolves. So, we should expect that all of the progress won’t be in the same direction. We may take a few steps one way and then need to go in another direction for a while until we can adapt to the changes.

How should we understand the idea of “safely living with the SARS-CoV-2 virus”? Is it still too early or unquestionable to simply live with the virus?

We are all trying to live with the virus right now, as we go into the third year of it having affected life in every part of our world. We wish it would go away permanently, but it hasn’t yet and it might not. Living with it will not mean pretending it does not exist. But we have the tools to make it less disruptive, especially by achieving a high vaccination rate.

We also know how to slow down the spread of the virus by using masks when around other people, following distancing measures, staying home when sick, and using testing as a way to prevent more exposures. Even though it is tempting to abandon these strategies when we say we want to live with the virus, these are the exact steps that allow us to stay open and get back to the activities we want.

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 has moved from place to place. As a new wave threatens Europe and North America, should Asia prepare to be the next?

Asian countries have always been involved in this pandemic. At many times, the rates of new infections were lower in Asia, especially in 2020 when countries like Vietnam were very successful in using the Health Ministry’s 5K message – khau trang (face masks), khu khuan (disinfection), khoang cach (distancing), khong tu tap (no gatherings), and khai bao y te (health declarations) – to contain the virus.

At other times, there have been large and deadly outbreaks in Asian countries, especially after the Delta variant arrived. This virus has proven that it can travel the globe rapidly and every country needs to remain prepared for another wave.

As the Omicron variant is seen to be less severe than the previous variants, and it is going to be the dominant one and what does that mean to us? Is Omicron possibly the last variant of concern of the SARS-CoV-2?

It’s far too early to say how many more variants could come after Omicron. We cannot know that. What we do know is how to make new variants less likely, by having less new infections that give the virus opportunities to mutate. Vaccination is our best tool to make this happen.

If Omicron truly is less severe than the previous variants, that is welcome news for everyone. But we cannot take it as a signal to ignore Omicron. We know it spreads incredibly quickly and we are seeing in other countries how it can overwhelm hospitals because many people are getting infected at the same time.

Can you tell about current plans to tackle future pandemics of the CDC Vietnam? How can countries work together to make this happen?

For agencies like the CDC that focus on preventing future pandemics, international cooperation is absolutely essential. The COVID-19 has made it very clear how quickly a pandemic can spread and how hard it can be to stop one country’s wave from reaching another. There are major initiatives to bring nations together for joint preparedness, like the Global Health Security Agenda. We focus on the systems that need to be strong to stop pandemics, like health data systems and public health laboratories. We use tools like surveillance to watch carefully where new pandemics might be arising, and we use the One Health approach so that dangerous diseases in both animals and humans are tracked carefully to avoid new threats.

Here in Vietnam, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development are leading the sort of partnerships that keep all of us safer from what could come next. We can all agree that we would rather prevent the next pandemic than spend years battling it.

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