Is there “no reason to panic” even as Singaporeans snap up Covid-19 test kits amid a new wave of infections?

The estimated number of cases in the week of May 5-11 rose to 25,900, almost double the previous week, the Health Ministry said in an update last weekend.

“The Ministry of Health is closely monitoring the trajectory of this wave. To protect hospital bed capacity and as a precaution, public hospitals have been asked to reduce their non-urgent elective surgery cases and transfer appropriate patients to care facilities,” he said.

People at an MRT subway station in Singapore. The estimated number of Covid cases in the week of May 5-11 rose to 25,900, almost double the previous week’s 13,700 cases. Photo: EPA-EFE

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung urged elderly and vulnerable people to receive an extra dose of the vaccine if they had not done so in the last year.

“We are in the early part of the wave and it is steadily increasing. So I would say that the wave should peak in the next two to four weeks, that is, between mid and end of June.”

However, the “temperature of this current wave” may cause it to last for a long time, said Paul Tambyah, president of the International Society of Infectious Diseases.

“This is because people who are mildly infected will go about their normal activities and spread the virus everywhere instead of resting at home, which they would have done with more severe illness.”

Since news broke about the rising number of cases, many pharmacies have seen Covid-19 test kits flying out, with some reporting a 150 per cent increase in demand in the last week, according to a report from the national newspaper The Straits. Times.

But pharmacies have sought to allay public concerns about supply shortages and said they have maintained stable stock levels.

A pharmacy at the Toa Payoh Polyclinic. Many pharmacies in Singapore have seen Covid-19 test kits flying off the shelves, with some reporting a 150 per cent increase in demand in the last week. Photo: Jacintha Stephens

Infectious disease experts who spoke to This Week in Asia said the surge would not create stress on the public health system, despite the expected rise in case numbers due to KP. 2 and KP. 1 variants.

The KP. 2 and KP. 1 are part of the “FLiRT” group, which originated from the Omicron branch of the coronavirus.

“While there is no indication that the circulating variants are more transmissible or cause more severe illness compared to previous variants, it is likely that immunity in the population has waned over time, especially for those who did not receive their booster doses. “said Dr. Vinod Balasubramaniam, a specialist in molecular biology. virologist and senior lecturer at Monash University in Malaysia.

“It is important to closely monitor these mutations to understand their impact on virus behavior, transmission, and the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.”

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Overseas variants

The new variant has been linked to new Covid-19 cases in several countries, including the United States, Australia, China and Thailand.

Following reports of new cases in Singapore, Malaysia’s Health Ministry said it was closely monitoring the situation in the neighboring state.

“The most widespread variant in Malaysia remains Omicron and its subvariants,” Malaysian Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said in a statement on Sunday, adding that there had only been one case of each KP. 2.1 and KP1.1. variants registered since March.

Meanwhile, India’s Health Ministry said on Tuesday it had recorded 290 cases of KP. 2 variants and 34 cases of KP. 1 this month.

Anurag Agarwal, dean of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University in India, said an increase in cases was likely, but the country’s health system was not expected to come under pressure.

“I don’t anticipate any major public health risks beyond increased infections and of course some severe cases,” he said, pointing to a similar increase in cases during the last wave in December with the JN.1 variant.

Shoppers on Orchard Road in Singapore Photo: Bloomberg

The symptoms associated with FLiRT variants are similar to those of Omicron variants, says Balasubramaniam, warning that the elderly were more vulnerable to severe illness due to weaker immune functions and age-related physiological changes.

“There are no published reports, but anecdotally in patients I have seen, the symptoms appear to be the same as other variants: fever, cough and sore throat,” Tambyah said.

“I don’t think people should be any more worried than they are about the other variants or the seasonal flu, for that matter.”

However, experts noted that the effectiveness of the vaccine variants was still being studied.

Balasubramaniam listed two preliminary studies by researchers in Japan and China, which suggested that FLiRT variants could be better than JN.1 at evading immune protection from vaccines.

He added that, however, vaccines are still useful in protecting against serious diseases that could lead to death or the need for hospital treatment.

Office workers go out to lunch at Raffles Place in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Tambyah also noted that patients recently infected with the previously dominant JN.1 strain could be protected from the current wave.

Handling this latest wave of infections should be “a bit of a problem” for governments and hospitals, said Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist based in Singapore.

“Hospitalization rates will not be as severe due to vaccinations and previous infections. They reduce the chance of serious infections,” he said. “In addition, we have good antiviral agents. This will mitigate the numbers if used wisely.”

Tambyah agreed, noting that governments in the region were better prepared to deal with the new wave because it was mostly mild and they had more than three years of pandemic experience.

“The key is to reassure the public that most of them can be treated symptomatically by their local pharmacists or family doctors and that only those who have difficulty breathing or are moderately seriously ill need to be seen in hospital.

“Otherwise, healthcare facilities risk being overwhelmed by the ‘worried good guys,'” Tambyah said.