Countries around the world, one after the other, are joining the list of areas known to have been struck by the Omicron variant of coronavirus. First detected and registered by doctors in South Africa, Omicron has now reached several American and European countries, Japan and even Iran’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Health officials in Iran have conceded that Omicron will inevitably find its way over the border. So far, they say, it has not been detected. But Dr. Hamid Soori, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Operations Center, told IranWire Iran lacks the mechanism to detect new variants in any event.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning about the Omicron variant and advised all countries to promote compliance with health protocols, and to put in place procedures to control their borders.
The National Coronavirus Taskforce has banned flights from six countries in response. But inside Iran, the government has pressed ahead with reopenings ahead its so-called “Smart Coronavirus Project” – which sees restrictions targeted only toward the unvaccinated – coming into effect on Monday, December 6. Night-time traffic curfews have now been lifted and movie theaters have again opened their doors.
It comes despite concerns that the variant might already have found its way into Iran. On Thursday, December 2, Mohammad Hashemi, the head of Health Ministry’s public relations, tweeted about the first confirmed Omicron case in the UAE. “Be very careful!” he warned.
Other health officials have similarly raised the alarm. Dr. Hamid Soori of the National Coronavirus Taskforce told IranWire: “We know that Omicron spreads at a very fast rate and can infect more people in a short time. The number of fatalities caused by Omicron is [so far] much lower than the Delta and Beta variants. But younger age groups are more susceptible to infection from this variant.”
A surge in infections among younger people, Dr. Soori said, could have major economic and social consequences for Iran. “When the virus spreads faster, people have to remain at home. This means work and business will come to a halt, which also has a negative psychological impact on people.”
Dr. Soori is against the reopening of public spaces in Iran at a time when the WHO has described a new variant of coronavirus as “dangerous” and “of concern” – and at a time when the Ministry of Health would struggle to identify Omicron if it had come to Iran.
“To find out whether a new variant has reached Iran,” he said, “we must be able to systematically take a high number of samples, from people who are either entering the country or have had contact with infected individuals, for testing with the specific purpose of finding new variants. Unfortunately, Iran has no system in place with which to screen for new variants and that’s why we are going to learn by chance if and whne a new variant has entered the country.”
Earlier, when the Delta variant was raging across Iran, provincial health officials had to send suspect samples to Tehran to identify the variant. In all cases, it took several days for the test results to be ready.
Dr. Soori believes that there is a high probability that Omicron has already come to Iran: “It’s very likely that it’s here, even though we have no proof. As of now, at least 2,000 cases of infection by this variant have been detected around the world, including in our neighboring countries. We will probably have a better idea of the situation in the coming days.”
Should we expect an Omicron peak in Iran similar to one in South Africa? “As of now,” Dr. Soori says, “fatalities from the Omicron variant have not been high. If we measure the peak by the number of fatalities, it doesn’t seem likely Iran will experience another major wave, even if the case numbers rise. On the other hand, if we measure the peak by the number of cases, we still won’t be able to say anything for sure because we don’t have enough of a system in place for screening and testing.”
Because of low testing, Dr. Soori says, “It’s likely that some people get infected without being aware of it, either because they have no symptoms, or because the symptoms are so light they don’t go to the hospital. Another scenario is that the patient is diagnosed incorrectly: for example, with stomach trouble when really they have Covid-19.”
Official Coronavirus Statistics
According to the Health Ministry’s weekly statistics, a total of 612 patients are known to have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending December 2. With 119 deaths, November 30 had the highest officially-recorded number of fatalities for the week.
At the week’s end, 3,314 Covid-19 patients in Iran were being treated in ICUs. According to the Health Ministry, at the time of writing the total number of vaccine doses injected had reached 106,621,650.
There are currently no Iranian cities on red alert for coronavirus transmission, 22 are rated orange and 207 are yellow. Currently 219 cities in Iran are on “blue” alert.