A new Greek tragedy has risen with the World Health Organization (WHO) designating Omicron, a SARS-CoV-2 variant, as a ‘variant of concern’ (VOC). While it took WHO several weeks to designate older VOCs such as Alpha, Beta and Delta as a VOC when they emerged, in the case of Omicron, which was first confirmed in Botswana , it moved without even waiting for reports on the variant’s increased likelihood to cause disease and whether it is denting the normal public health response. Omicron has now been confirmed in South Africa , Botswana, the U.K., Germany, Italy and travellers into the Netherlands and Israel. It reportedly has over 50 mutations, 32 of which are on the spike protein, which binds to human cells and is the preferred target for vaccines. Several of the mutations confer the virus resistance to monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) such as etesevimab, bamlanivimab, casirivimab and their combinations. Antibodies are the first line of defence against viral infection and mAbs are used in treatment. However, it is important to emphasise that every single mutation does not independently increase virulence and combinations of them might sometimes temper, and sometimes aggravate, virus properties.
The virus has been detected in comparable numbers only in South Africa’s Gauteng province , but the variant comprises over 90% of the fraction of genomes from those who tested positive there within just 10 days. Some nations have already imposed travel bans on flights from South Africa. Given that Omicron is a variant of the virus that can be detected by the PCR test, these countries, rather than imposing a ban, should have taken the more considered step of screening passengers and followed the usual protocols of isolation and treatment. India has done well so far to adhere to this system and observing caution . Detecting a variant in a country does not imply it originated there. Travel bans punish South Africa for its transparency and forthrightness in alerting the world to this variant. South Africa’s number of daily infections — 2,828 on Friday — pales in comparison to daily numbers in the United States, Germany and Britain. However, a little over 10% in Africa have received one dose of a vaccine, compared with 64% in North America and 62% in Europe. The panic over the variant shifts blame away from the world’s colossal failure in not making more vaccines available in Africa even as many countries roll out third doses. From day one, the science was clear cut that the pandemic cannot end unless the whole world is protected. India must scale up supplies to COVAX, the international consortium seeking to vaccinate countries with limited access, as well as coax countries with surplus stocks to do so.