On Thursday and Friday last week, the world digested news of a new COVID-19 variant called omicron, yet another variant that has caused concern among the public in countries all over the world.
The variant was first found in South Africa, with health officials attributing it to a recent spike in infections in that country (3,200 daily cases on Nov. 27, much higher than the close to less than 500 the country was seeing at the end of October and beginning of November). After reporting it to the United Nations, the variant was called omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO), continuing its tradition of Greek alphabet names for COVID-19 variants.
According to South African health officials, fewer than 100 cases of the new variant have been confirmed, and those that have been are largely among young people who have the lowest vaccination rate in the country.
Since then, omicron has been found in Canada (the first two cases were reported in Ottawa over the weekend), Germany, Israel, the U.K., and more. The United States has not yet reported a case linked to the variant, however the expectation, according to public health officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci, is that the variant is already in the U.S., and reports of infections will break soon. More infections are expected to be reported as more countries start testing for the variant and it continues to spread, which is expected to happen quickly according to South Africa's Center for Epidemic Response & Innovation.
Information is still limited, but the United Nationals World Health Organization (WHO) has designated the strain as a “variant of concern,” the same designation that was given to the Delta variant, which caused a spike in the number of infections last summer. Still, while there is concern over the variant, there is also caution being stressed with just how little the world currently knows about omicron.
How is it impacting travel?
A number of countries have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and Botswana, including Britain, France, and more, who have all moved to cancel direct flights from South Africa and surrounding nations.
Canada, for its part, installed some restrictions on Friday on foreign nationals who had visited some southern African countries over the last couple of weeks. The U.S. did the same, announcing restrictions on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and more African countries.
Other countries, like Japan and Israel, have closed their borders completely to all foreigners.
The WHO is imploring countries to “adopt a risk-based scientific approach to travel bans” linked to the new variant, explaining that counties that are sharing their findings openly shouldn’t be discriminated against.
It is also important to note that while the variant has been linked to a bump in South Africa’s infection numbers, it is still only a slight increase and that country’s infection numbers remain well-off previous spikes (South Africa was recording more than 20,000 new daily cases during its previous two spikes as opposed to the 3,300 or so it is recording daily this week.”
What are the experts saying?
Public Health Agency of Canada: “Early data suggest that the Omicron variant may be more transmissible but evidence is limited at this time. There is ongoing international data gathering to determine the impact of this variant on severity of illness and on vaccine effectiveness. These temporary border measures are being implemented while the Canadian and global medical, public health and research communities actively evaluate this variant – as has been done with previous variants -- to understand the potential implications in terms of transmission, clinical presentation and vaccine efficacy.”
WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove: “There are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences that are available, we don't know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves…It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, there's a lot of work that is underway.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “CDC is continuously monitoring variants and the U.S. variant surveillance system has reliably detected new variants in this country. We expect Omicron to be identified quickly, if it emerges in the U.S…We know what it takes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. CDC recommends people follow prevention strategies such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, washing your hands frequently, and physically distancing from others. CDC also recommends that everyone 5 years and older protect themselves from COVID-19 by getting?fully vaccinated. CDC encourages a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose for those who are eligible.”
Moderna Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton: speaking to the BBC this past weekend, Burton said that it will take a couple weeks to determine whether the current vaccine provides protection to the new variant. If a new vaccine is required, it could come as early as next year. "If we have to make a brand new vaccine, I think that's going to be early 2022 before that's really going to be available in large quantities,” he said.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla: speaking to CNBC on Monday, Bourla said that he expects the Pfier treatment pill to be effective against the omicron variant. “The good news when it comes to our treatment, it was designed with that in mind, it was designed with with the fact that most mutations are coming in the spikes…So that gives me very high level of confidence that the treatment will not be affected, our oral treatment will not be affected by this virus.”