When South African officials sounded the alarm on the new Omicron variant last Thursday, stocks around the world tumbled and up to 70 countries, including the United States, imposed travel bans and restrictions to southern African countries.
The knee-jerk response followed the news that the variant had an unusually high number of mutations, which scientists feared could make it more transmissible and result in immune evasion.
Much is still unknown about Omicron, including its origin, severity and its transmissibility. Researchers are also racing to discover if it could displace existing variants and become dominant, as Delta has.
Early “indications” show that people who have received the coronavirus vaccine booster are “protected” against the new variant, Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Tuesday.
This comes after anecdotal reports from South Africa suggested that most cases of the Omicron variant have been mild so far. But those South African cases were “mostly [among] young people anyway. So, I would say we just don’t know [if the new variant causes more serious illness than previous strains],” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN on Sunday.
Scientists say it will take weeks to unearth how dangerous the new variant is. But we do know that Omicron has been found in Europe, with cases of community transmission identified in earlier Covid-19 samples before the travel bans came into place.
Dutch health officials said Tuesday that Omicron was present in the Netherlands a week before two flights arrived from South Africa carrying the virus. At least one of the cases is thought to have been contracted in the Netherlands, RIVM virologist Chantal Reusken told national broadcaster NOS.
Nine cases of Omicron were linked to a private event on November 20 in Scotland, days before South Africa announced the existence of the variant. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Scottish Parliament Tuesday that none of the individuals had a recent travel history or known links to others who had traveled from southern Africa.
These cases have prompted some to question the need for the cascading travel restrictions, which has triggered a wave of resentment on the African continent. Many view the bans as another example of Africans bearing the brunt of hasty pandemic policymaking, which has seen rich countries hoarding vaccine doses and resources to the detriment of poorer nations.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” South Africa’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday, adding that the restrictions were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
“Putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said the following day. “Covid-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”
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Q: What raised alarms for scientists about Omicron, compared to other variants?
A: In the case of Omicron, what initially raised alarms for doctors and scientists in South Africa was the rapid rate of spread of this new variant, according to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen.
“It appears to be outcompeting Delta in speed, but whether it will force out Delta and become dominant remains to be seen,” she said.
“In addition, the large number of this variant’s mutations — over 50 in all — raises the question of immune escape, both to vaccines and treatments like monoclonal antibodies. These are types of information that we will need to obtain through further scientific studies,” she added.
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Scientists say it will take weeks to tell how dangerous Omicron really is. Here’s why
As soon as South Africa announced the spread of a new and troubling variant last week, scientists went to work. By the time WHO had named the new lineage Omicron, multiple teams of researchers had already duplicated the work from South Africa and mapped out the genetic changes that made Omicron the new bad actor of the coronavirus family, Maggie Fox reports.
Although many of those mutations were familiar from other variants, scientists were still unsure whether they make Omicron substantially different from previous variants — especially the super-dominant Delta variant.
But it will take weeks of testing to tell what added superpowers, if any, these mutations give Omicron. Researchers must look at what’s happening in the real world by testing samples taken from patients, sequencing their genomes to see if it’s Omicron causing the infections, and see if more samples turn out to be Omicron.
They’ll also explore whether Omicron infections lead to more severe disease and if fully vaccinated people end up more likely to become infected with the Omicron variant as opposed to other strains.
Making Covid-19 vaccines mandatory was once unthinkable. European countries are showing it can work
Earlier this month, Austria took a step once unimaginable for a Western democracy: It announced that Covid-19 vaccinations would become compulsory for its entire population.
Up until then, governments around the world had rejected the idea of a universal coronavirus vaccine mandate, opting instead for incentives and other “nudges” to motivate people to get shots. Even in authoritarian states, like China, it is not mandatory.
Now, other European countries are starting to consider similarly drastic measures to persuade more people to be inoculated, despite criticisms that low vaccination rates made them unrealistic and would deprive millions from earning a livelihood, Eliza Mackintosh reports.
FDA advisers vote to recommend authorization of Merck pill to treat Covid-19
As fears about the Omicron variant mount, advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration voted to recommend emergency use authorization of a pill made by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to help treat Covid-19.
The narrow 13-10 vote endorsed the treatment, called molnupiravir, although members of the committee expressed worries about risks to pregnant women and several said they hoped Merck would be asked to continue gathering safety data on the pill.
If authorization is granted, the drug would be the first oral antiviral treatment to fight Covid-19. It can reduce the relative risk someone will progress to severe disease or death by about 30%. The pills must be taken within five days of the start of symptoms to do much good, and people must take four pills twice a day for five days.
There’s a new variant circulating. Here’s what you can do to stay safe
As the world waits to learn more about the Omicron variant, it’s easy to get caught up in the unknowns. Instead, health officials are reminding us of the simple yet effective tools we all have to combat the virus.
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