In the past week, countries across the world are reporting cases, a few each, of what has been named as the Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa. India has now seen two confirmed cases, but as with the rest of the world, there could be many more
On November 26, the WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern, named Omicron. So, how different is Omicron, and how does it compare with previous variants?
According to scientists
- The Alpha variant, first identified in the UK, that spread to about 50 countries had about 23 mutations when it was named a Variant of Concern
- Beta variant had about 6 mutations- that was first identified in South Africa
- Gamma variant first identified in Japan but credited to travellers from Brazil, had about 13.
- Delta variant, that was first identified in India had about 10 mutations. Later saw Delta Plus subvariants - Delta was the fastest spreading, most infectious variant, accounting for as many as 99% of the new cases worldwide by November 2021.
- Then there was the Mu variant sequenced first in Colombia, seen in about 39 countries, but not known for a substantial number of variants or cases: infact the WHO clubbed all the smaller number of eta, iota, kappa, and lambda variants into Mu- these were classified as Variants of Interest, not Variants of Concern like the other
- Now there is the Omicron variant includes about 50 mutations, half of which are unique, and about 30 on the spike proteins- on an aside- after Mu, WHO discarded the letter Nu as it could be confused with New, and also skipped Xi, as it is the name of the Chinese President Xi Jinping- and wanted to avoid being seen as targeting any country
Here is what the WHO says about what they are looking at most closely with Omicron
2. Severity of disease
3. Effectiveness of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection
4. Effectiveness of vaccines.
5. Effectiveness of current tests
6. Effectiveness of current treatments: Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.
The truth is, the answer to these will not be known for weeks. But a world on edge is clearly taking no chances, and we have already seen:
1. Travel Bans: Countries like the UK and US banned travellers from South Africa and neighbouring countries.
2. Entry restrictions: Passengers are being tested and then asked to wait upto 6 hours at airports to check for symptoms- India has a special protocol from those arriving from about 10 countries at risk.
3. More testing: US will test all inbound passengers on arrival, countries like the UAE are imposing 2-3 tests on each traveller
4. Mask mandates: are back in many countries that had relaxed them
5. Speeding up vaccines
6. Impact on economic growth revival- particularly in the travel tourism and hotel industries
But there are still many lessons that have not been learnt:
1. Vaccines remain inequitably distributed: More than half the world population has received atleast one dose 54.6%, but only 6% of those in low income countries have received one dose. A total of 8.1 billion doses have now been administered. The gap between the global north and south is visible.
2. The World still has no coordinated response to the pandemic and each new variant, as the differences over Omicron have shown. A World Health Assembly treaty on the pandemic may not be ready until May 2024
3. The global pharma industry has still not shown it can put its capitalistic instincts aside- Vaccine manufacturers are not freely sharing their technology, and the India-South Africa sponsored WTO proposal to remove intellectual property rights has made little headway so far. A key ministerial WTO meeting due to be held this week was cancelled due to the new pandemic worries.
4. The world’s richest countries continue to impose arbitrary and debilitating actions over the world’s poorer countries – with the pandemic becoming a new excuse for discrimination. For eg- while variants have been found in G-7 countries like UK, US and Japan, they are more likely to lead to travel bans on countries like South Africa, India, Brazil etc. A global power like China continues to intimidate global bodies like WHO- and even the naming of Omicron was done in deference to Chinese sensitivities over the name of their leader.
5. We are still no closer to a real conclusion on the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic. While it may not make much difference to pin it to any one region or country, given its worldwide spread, it is necessary to pin point the practices that may have given rise to it, particularly if there is a suspicion that this was a product of biotechnological research – and if the origins came from a laboratory.
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