Ominous Omicron Sparks Global Worries

People step off a tram today in Nottingham, England, where 1 of the 2 cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 were identified last week. Image: Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty
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People step off a tram today in Nottingham, England, where 1 of the 2 cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 were identified last week. Image: Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty

It was only a matter of time.
 
News of the latest coronavirus variant emerged November 24 from South Africa, soon followed by confirmed cases from Australia to Hong Kong, Israel, the Netherlands, and now Canada, Axios reports.
 
Why the worry?: The variant, dubbed Omicron, has multiple mutations that raised concerns it might be more easily transmitted than the Delta variant. It was first noticed in areas in South Africa that had rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and increasing hospitalization rates, but epidemiologists are still trying to understand if that was because of Omicron or other factors, the WHO reported yesterday.
 
Where we are now:

  • Scientists don’t yet know if Omicron causes more severe disease, the WHO said. Understanding that will take several more weeks.
  • The level of protection against Omicron afforded by vaccination and previous infection are not yet understood.
  • Corticosteroids and IL6 receptor blocker treatments “will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19,” according to the WHO.

Travel bans:

  • Japan and Israel have banned entry to all foreigners, while Morocco banned all incoming flights starting today, AP reports.
  • The moves follow the US and other countries’ decisions last week to halt flights from southern Africa.

 
Reality check: “There are huge disparities in how much sequencing countries are doing,” tweeted Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This tells us: 1) the country that 1st reports may not be origin; 2) penalizing countries that report variants may have a chilling effect on surveillance for variants.”
 
Hopeful notes:

  • Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who notified officials on November 18 of unusual cases COVID-19, said her patients (young people from different backgrounds and ethnicities) had mild symptoms that included fatigue but not loss of taste or smell, The Telegraph reports.
  • BioNTech, which developed the mRNA vaccine with Pfizer, said it could produce an Omicron-specific version of its vaccine within 100 days, according to The Guardian. The company also said it will be 2 weeks before we know how effective the current vaccine is against Omicron.


Researcher’s rebuke: Wealthy countries ignored African researchers and others who warned that a lack of vaccines there could foster the emergence of new variants, said Francois Venter, a researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, according to The New York Times.

Venter’s rebuke: “Told you so.”

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