The recently identified Omicron variety of the Covid-19 coronavirus has brought a new wave of travel restrictions in several countries. The variant was first detected in South Africa but has since been detected in Australia, Hong Kong, and Europe. The World Health Organisation assigned the B.1.1.529 variant a name because of its “concerning” mutations and preliminary evidence suggesting “an increased risk of reinfection with this variant”.

There is still debate over the potency of the variant. South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla claimed that Omicron is behind a recent spike in cases in his country, although experts have not confirmed this claim. Scientists say the variant has 30 mutations on its spike protein — over twice the number on the Delta variant. The mutations are what let the virus infect a person. Scientists are concerned that the high number of mutations may lead to an increased risk of infection among people who had previously been infected by another strain, and even among some vaccinated people. The first two cases detected in Australia were among fully vaccinated travellers.

There is also concern that successful treatment regimens — such as those using monoclonal antibodies — will fail because these treatments target parts of the virus that have mutated. South Africa has also been critical of the “draconian” response of banning travel, noting that the variant was detected in several countries at around the same time while South Africa was only the first country to identify it.

What Omicron has done is expose the lack of effort by wealthy countries to actually end the virus by supporting increased vaccination — barely 10% of all eligible people on the African continent have received at least one shot. Botswana, which is on several travel ban lists, has one of the continent’s highest vaccination rates, with just 37% of people having gotten their first dose and only 20% fully vaccinated. Interestingly, scientists also believe the disease is likely mutated in the body of an immune-compromised person, further emphasising the need to reach herd immunity levels.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2021.

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