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Vaccinations are not the holy grail

The latest Covid variant Omicron has clouded the year-end party mood in Thailand.

And despite official warnings from scientists in South Africa and Botswana — two countries where the variant has been previously discovered and proven to be highly transmissible — this new threat continues to outsmart existing vaccines, even if symptoms appear quite mild.

The pharmaceutical industry is back in the lead as they rush to create a formula effective in suppressing the spread of the species as the once-new routines of hygiene and social distancing become the norm. In the worst-case scenario, it could be a long time coming with another year of lockdowns, quarantines and restrictions. Health care volunteers may need to take action again if another round of massive testing and follow-up is needed to identify and protect the most vulnerable.

And if tracking down a new group of Covid patients is key, Thais should pray for divine intervention, as the government’s tracking system has been far from impressive or reassuring.

The latest glaring example is the current search for 272 travellers from eight high-risk countries in southern Africa.

The group entered the country on Nov. 15 and will remain in Thailand, but will have to undergo a repeat RT-PCR test for Omicron that had been omitted in previous testing protocols. Since December 1, health authorities have been ordered to search travellers from eight countries. The Department of Health is said to be using the MorChana mobile tracing app to locate them. It marks the first time the ministry has had to use the system to locate foreign visitors since installing and using the app was made mandatory for all foreign arrivals on Nov. 1.

Until recently, only 44 had been located and RT-PCR tested. The Ministry of Health has promised to find and test another 133 travellers who have been in the country for less than two weeks, while the remaining 95 will not have to do RT-PCR because they have been here for more than two weeks.

It is hoped that this digital technology can keep up with the rapid spread of the variant. However, in the first three days of a comprehensive and effective search, the ministry hoped for, only a quarter of the sought-after arrivals were identified. It remains to be seen how long it will take to apprehend the remaining 133 at-risk people.

So far, the case has been another example of the government’s failings in using digital innovations in emergency situations.

The Thais themselves have had plenty of bad experiences with government mobile apps, most notably the infamous MorProm app developed by the Ministry of Health to administer vaccines that not only suffered from a series of publicized accidents. The app turned out to be very unpopular and has been repurposed. The MorChana app, only a month old, already seems unsuitable for monitoring the reopening of the country for many thousands of tourists.

Omicron should be understood as a wake-up call that the country’s fight against Covid is far from over and this time it will take more than vaccines to fight it. With vaccines proving not to be the holy grail many expected, much will depend on key government decisions in the weeks and months ahead.

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