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#BTColumn- Omicron variant: Be Vigilant

by Barbados Today
6 min read

The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.

by Wayne Campbell

“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 COVID- 19 variant has reminded the world that the pandemic is not yet over. We have been told repeatedly that the COVID-19 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 organize the impacts of the variant. The WHO breaks it up into Variants of Concern (VOC), Variants of Interest (VOI), and Variants Under Monitoring (VUM). The WHO has identified COVID-19 Variants of Concern, such as the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta.
Lambda and Mu are considered Variants of Interest.

No one has been spared the devastating impact of this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In recent times, we have seen a disturbing trend of an uptick in COVID-19 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 COVID-19 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.

Infection rates have risen sharply on the continent, prompting warnings from the World Health Organization (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. Large sections of Europe have once again implemented lockdown measures in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a new coronavirus variant to be “of concern” and named it Omicron. 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 said the variant has been identified as having 30 different mutations already and early evidence suggests a possible increased risk of reinfection. By comparison, that is twice as many mutations as the Delta variant, which has been the most prominent variant in many parts of the world.

In South Africa, where only 35 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, the variant has begun to spread rapidly.
Several factors could be contributing to the rising caseload, including the nation’s low vaccination rate. Researchers are also working to determine if the mutations make the variant more easily transmissible or if it has a mechanism that allows the variant to escape a natural or vaccine-acquired immune response.

It was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on 24 November, and has also been identified in the United Kingdom, Botswana, Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Israel. The variant was first detected in 22 patients in South Africa. In neighbouring Botswana, four cases of the new variant were found. 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 from 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 November 26, Grenada became the first Caribbean country to impose a travel ban on travellers from Southern Africa.

Many countries have only started to experience a slow recovery after almost two years of lockdown and curfews.

However, with the identification of this new COVID-19 strain, many economies which are reliant on tourism will be severely impacted. Countries in Southern Africa and the Caribbean depend on tourists from the United States, Europe, and China. South Africa’s tourism minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, described the temporary travel bans as “devastating.”

COVID-19 vaccination rates have 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. Statistics from the online platform

“Our World in Data” show that 7.8 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered; 53 percent of the world’s population has received at least 1 dose.

It is often said that numbers do not lie.

The above table shows us that the poorer nations continue to struggle to access COVID-19 vaccines while richer nations are administering COVID-19 booster shots.

We should not be surprised that a mutated form of the COVID-19 has emerged on the continent of Africa where access to the COVID-19 vaccines is limited.

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

Be On Your Guard As we await more information regarding the Omicron COVID-19 variant, let us remain vigilant. The truth is many of us have let our guards down after almost two years of living with this COVID-19 pandemic. It is inevitable that the Omicron variant will eventually reach the Caribbean.

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 to spread the novel coronavirus.

A number of critical questions are yet to be answered. How transmissible is this strain of the coronavirus? Do the current COVID-19 vaccines offer protection from this variant? Now is not the time to panic. We therefore must continue to adhere to the COVID-19 protocols which include face covering, social distancing and the sanitization of our hands. Continue to remain safe.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. waykam@yahoo.com @WayneCamo 

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