Variants and vaccine
A new novel coronavirus variant has emerged called Omicron.

“When you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases…when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The identification of a new novel coronavirus variant has reminded the world that the pandemic is not yet over. We have been told repeatedly that the novel coronavirus pandemic will be with us for some time.

After a virus gets its name, the World Health Organization (WHO) assigns labels to those variants to better identify its impact. The WHO categorises them as variants of concern (VOC), variants of interest (VOI), or variants under monitoring (VUM). The WHO has identified the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta as VOC, while the Lambda and Mu are considered VOI.

No one has been spared the devastating impact of this ongoing pandemic. In recent times we have seen the disturbing trend of an uptick in cases all across Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

Austria has returned to a full national lockdown as protests against new restrictions aimed at curbing infections spread across Europe. From midnight, Austrians have been asked to work from home and non-essential shops have closed. New restrictions have sparked protests throughout Europe as lockdown measures have once again been implemented in some sections in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Infection rates have risen sharply on the continent, prompting warnings from the WHO.

This trend has been especially worrying given that the COVID-19 vaccination rate for Western Europe and North America is relatively high compared to other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the WHO has identified a more recent variant. Those who thought the pandemic was over are clearly in for a rude awakening. The new variant — Omicron — has been identified as a VOC. In a statement on Friday the WHO said the number of cases of this variant, initially named B 1 1 529, appeared to be increasing in almost all of South Africa's provinces.

The WHO has also indicated that the virus has been identified as having 30 different mutations already. By comparison, that is twice as many as the Delta variant, which has been the most prominent variant in many parts of the world. In South Africa, only 35 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, and the variant has begun to spread rapidly.

A number of factors could be contributing to the rising number of cases, including the nation's low vaccination rate. Researchers are also working to determine if the mutations make the Omicron more easily transmissible or if it has a mechanism that allows it to escape a natural or vaccine-acquired immune response. The WHO said early evidence suggested a possible increased risk of reinfection.

It was first reported by South Africa on November 24, and has also been identified in the United Kingdom, Botswana, Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Israel.

Omicron was first detected in 22 patients in South Africa. In neighbouring Botswana, four cases were identified. The Botswana Government announced that the four cases were all foreign diplomats who had since left, and that contact tracing was continuing. The WHO has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant as scientists work to determine how transmissible it is.

Travel Restrictions

On Friday the European Union and the United States announced restrictions on flights from Southern Africa. The US restrictions will apply to travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Other nations which have imposed travel restrictions on travellers arriving from Southern Africa include Jamaica, Canada, Bahrain, Belgium, Oman, Thailand, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Singapore. On Friday Grenada became the first Caribbean country to impose a ban on travellers from Southern Africa.

Many countries had just started to experience a slow recovery after almost two years of lockdowns and curfews. However, with the identification of this new strain, many economies which are reliant on tourism will be severely impacted.

Countries in Southern Africa and the Caribbean are dependent on tourists from the United States, Europe, and China. South Africa's Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu described the temporary travel bans as “devastating”.

The Jamaican health-care system cannot cope with another wave of infections, our health-care workers are overworked.

Countries -- Percentage of Population Vaccinated

Jamaica 16.9

Trinidad and Tobago 45.7

Guyana 34.5

Grenada 30

Barbados 47

Haiti 0.6

Turks and Caicos Islands 70.1

Cuba 80.5

Cayman Islands 83

USA 59.1

Canada 76.1

United Kingdom 68.8

India 30.6

Japan 77.0

Brazil 60.4

Russia 38.1

United Arab

Emirates 88

Chad 0.4

Ghana 2.7

Yemen 1.8

Mali 2.9

Australia 72.4

Norway 71.0

Finland 72.7

Vaccination

Access to the COVID-19 vaccine has further highlighted the gap between rich and poor nations. In Europe, North America, and the rich Arab states the vaccination rate is much denser than in poorer countries, such as those in Africa.

According to statistics from the online platform Our World in Data, 7.8 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered, with 53 per cent of the world's population having received at least one dose.

It is often said that numbers do not lie. The above table shows that the poorer nations continue to struggle to access COVID-19 vaccines, while richer nations are administering booster shots. We should not be surprised that a mutated form of the novel coronavirus has emerged on the continent of Africa, where access to the COVID-19 vaccine is in short supply.

The international community clearly has been rattled with this latest strain of the novel coronavirus. The New York Times has reported that stocks around the world fell on Friday and oil prices plunged after evidence of the new variant prompted another round of travel restrictions and reactivated economic concerns.

Be On Your Guard

As we await more information regarding the Omicron variant, let us remain vigilant. The truth is, many of us have let our guards down after almost two years of living with this pandemic.

It is inevitable that the Omicron will reach the Caribbean and eventually Jamaican shores. Regrettably, we are seeing fewer individuals wearing masks and oftentimes there is no social distancing in public spaces.

As we approach the Christmas season we can anticipate more social gatherings and perhaps fewer restrictions. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for further spread of the virus.

However, a number of critical questions are yet to be answered: How transmissible is this strain? Does the current COVID-19 vaccine offer protection from this variant?

Now is not the time to panic.

We must continue to adhere to the COVID-19 protocols; continue to remain safe.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or waykam@yahoo.com.

Dr Anthony Fauci (Photo: AP)
Wayne Campbell
Wayne Campbell

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