How fear of new unstoppable Covid variant gripped the world — Analysis
A newly identified, heavily-mutated coronavirus strain dubbed ‘Omicron’ is triggering alarm across much of the globe, prompting a rash of travel restrictions amid fears that existing vaccines will be unable to stop the variant.
WHO designates new ‘variant of concern’
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO), convened an emergency meeting to address the virus strain previously known as B.1.1.529 and declared it a “variant of concern”It was renamed to “Omicron.”
The risk of reinfection is higher with this strain than other strains, according to preliminary evidence.
While little is yet known about Omicron, the WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan noted that it carried “a number of worrying mutations”This could increase the risk of infection. Omicron is also susceptible to any of the known mutations. There are concerns that Omicron might be more resistant than other vaccines.
The evolution of the virus’ genes is a major factor in transmitting the virus. “spike proteins” – microscopic protrusions that allow the coronavirus to access and hijack host cells, causing infection. A strain detected in South Africa in May 2020 and dubbed ‘Beta,’ for example, had three significant mutations in its spike region, which helped make it between 20 and 30% more infectious. Omicron is believed to be able to carry at least 32 of these spike mutations.
The WHO’s designation came soon after the first cases of Omicron were identified in the African nation of Botswana on November 11, with additional infections detected in South Africa just days later. Since then, Omicron is believed to now make up 90% of new infections in South Africa’s Gauteng region, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the country’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation.
Hong Kong recorded its first Omicron-related case Thursday. Israel also reported an Omicron-related infection on Friday. Israel now monitors two suspected victims. It is possible that the Omicron strain may be spreading rapidly beyond south Africa.
Omicron strikes Europe
Although Israel and Britain had implemented travel restrictions on certain African countries earlier in the week, Omicron was discovered by Belgium, the nation that first detected the virus within its borders. The discovery set off alarms across the continent and beyond, with the UK’s Health Security Agency deeming Omicron “the worst variant we have seen so far.”
The news about the strain dominating headlines Friday was so strong that Italy, France, Spain and Germany all declared new travel bans. Ursula von der Leyen (President of European Commission) called for an immediate suspension of all travel from and to countries where there have been reported cases. This is until the officials are better informed.
Russia, together with Brazil, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore have joined the growing list of countries that are imposing travel bans.
Omicron’s impact on international stock markets has been significant. However, much remains to be known about Omicron and its dangers. As of Thursday, fewer than 100 full genome sequences were available for review, and the WHO’s technical head on Covid-19, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said it could take several weeks before much insight is gleaned into the strain and its mutations.
The main agenda is to determine if Omicron has become resistant to the vaccines currently in use. Many countries have resorted to this method to reduce their outbreaks and eventually end the pandemic.