GEORGE TOWN: Current Covid-19 booster jabs are good enough to counter the highly transmissible Omicron XE variant, says a virologist.

Dr Kumitaa Theva Das from Universiti Sains Malaysia said the XE variant only accounts for a small fraction of cases (less than 1%), though it is over 10% more transmissible than the BA.2 sub-variant.

The “extremely high transmissibility” of the variant could mean that it will become the dominant variant soon, she said.

“Despite this variant being first discovered in January, there do not seem to be many reports of it in other countries.

“The only neighbouring country which has detected XE so far is Thailand, with one case over the weekend, where the spread was brought under control due to quick detection, and it did not affect us,” she said.

This suggested the possibility of a high level of protection from boosters shots and natural immunity from earlier infections.

Dr Kumitaa said an additional booster jab (fourth dose) may most likely not be necessary as the standard procedures of physical distancing, being in well-ventilated places, and practising good hygiene, can help control the spread.

“Beyond the estimated transmissibility, we have yet to discover other important aspects about the new variant, such as its severity, whether it causes reinfection, or if our current vaccines work against it,” she added.

Dr Kumitaa also said the opening of international borders may not necessarily put the country at high risk as was seen with the Mu and Lambda variants.

“As long as we maintain a robust surveillance system, it would not be a high risk if we are able to identify cases to enable timely treatment or isolation and reduce the risk of Covid-19,” she said.

She added that measures such as pre-departure testing as well as on-arrival testing, and ascertaining a person’s vaccination status, go a long way in protecting not only those on flights but the country as well.

Dr Kumitaa said the United Kingdom was able to pick up on the XE variant quickly because of its robust surveillance system with a global database showing that it submitted more than a million Omicron samples for genome sequencing.

“So the quick identification of XE shows that a good public healthcare system can keep case numbers small,” she said.

As for the types of masks which would best guard against the virus, Dr Kumitaa said the XE variant is currently not designated a variant-under-monitoring by the World Health Organisation, unlike XD (which is a hybrid of Delta and Omicron).

“As such, the N95, KN95 and KF94 masks previously recommended for Omicron should be sufficient for XE,” she said.