Scientists around the globe are rushing to assess the threat of the newest Omnicron variant. Once again, the world, already fatigued by the waves of Coronavirus, is facing a renewed fear as governments are racing to cope with the pandemic.
The lists of countries with infections are rising, while researchers are scrambling to confirm if the variant invades immunities in the previously infected. Or if it weakens the efficacy of the vaccine. Definitive answers could take weeks.
What Do We Know About Omnicron Variant?
The Omnicron variant has a unique genetic profile that sets it apart from other circulating variants, indicating that it represents a new virus lineage.
A critical difference between this variant and others is that there are more mutations. For example, the spike protein, the type of protein on the virus that binds to cells and allows it to gain entry, has more than 30 mutations, according to Pulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation South Africa.
Scientists fear those mutations will make Omnicron more transmissible, making vaccines less effective since they may defy immune defenses. In addition, there is strong evidence that the Omnicron variant is highly contagious, possibly even more so than the delta variant.
The Global Response
President Joe Biden on Friday announced travel restrictions on eight Southern African countries. The banned countries include South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, and Botswana. Officials agree that travel bans are unnecessary, but they will help the government buy some time to learn more about the Omnicron variant.
Despite criticism and backlash from South Africa, other nations are restricting travel from southern African countries, including the UK, Australia, Israel, France, and Germany. But, on Friday, President Joe Biden also called on the wealthy nations capable of donating vaccines to help the poor and middle-class, especially in South Africa.
However, global vaccination campaigns pose more than just accessibility concerns. South Africa has been plagued by vaccine hesitancy. Last week, the government ordered drug companies to delay the delivery of new doses because demand has decreased, despite less than 30 percent of its adult population being vaccinated. Europe is presently facing a recent outbreak, at least in part because of uneven vaccination uptake and vaccine resistance.
Are Travel Restrictions the Right Way To Go?
While countries are shutting their borders, business and leaders argue against it, claiming travel restrictions can not be a viable solution to deal with the pandemic. Yet, even without much transmission, countries around the globe are shutting their doors by rapidly banning travelers from South African countries. Witnessing the agony of suffering nationals in South Africa, many officials are calling the curb measures draconian.
WHO also supports these African leaders, arguing travel bans are not the most effective way of halting the spread of concern variants. The scientists in South Africa also regret their transparency, as it is backfiring on them with bans globally.
The European Center for Disease and Control warns about the “high to very high” spread of the Omnicron variant throughout Europe. Governments fear that the contagiousness of the mutation can result in widespread infections and might not even be contained by lockdowns.
What Could Be The Best Response?
Increasing numbers of countries are restricting travel from southern Africa. In addition to government restrictions, people should weigh their own vulnerability to COVID and tolerance for risk when deciding whether to travel during the winter holidays.
Despite questions about effectiveness, vaccines should remain a priority since they are likely still protective to some extent. Everyone should also continue to avoid crowds, maintain social distancing, wear masks, ventilate rooms, and wash hands.
There is no doubt that vaccination remains important, especially for groups who are at high risk of hospitalization and death. However, the data has also shown that high vaccination rates also help in reducing the strain on the healthcare system significantly.
Omnicron Variant: Instructions from WHO
WHO has released the following guidelines for countries to follow in light of the Omnicron variant:
- To better understand the circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, expand surveillance and sequencing efforts.
- Genome sequences must be submitted to a public database, such as GISAID.
- Using the IHR mechanism, report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infections to WHO.
- When capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, conduct field investigations and laboratory assessments to learn more about possible impacts of VOCs on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, diagnostic methods, immunity, antibody neutralization, the effectiveness of public health and social measures, and other relevant characteristics.
These precautions are especially important during the holiday season and cold weather when many people gather indoors. The New York Times’ Covid-19 tracker indicates that the number of new cases in the United States has increased by 10% over the past two weeks, with an average of 85,000 new cases per day, 52,000 hospitalizations, and about 1,000 deaths. Whereas, the percentage of vaccine-eligible Americans has reached almost 75 percent as of November 24, increasing the fear of the new, more contagious variant evermore.
Also Read: End of the Pandemic: Can We Live with COVID?