While American’s gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving, the WHO reported a Variant of Concern (VOC), omicron, in South Africa. The omicron variant was detected by physician, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association after several patients came in experiencing different, more mild symptoms than the previous covid variant cases she’d seen in her patients.
Little is known about the omicron variant. However, many are speculating it is more transmissible as there has been a recent uptick in cases in the South Africa region. Scientists are calling the mutations “concerning” although it isn’t uncommon for a virus to mutate. Frequently, when viruses mutate, they become more transmissible, but cause a less harmful infection.
In a recent interview, Dr. Coetzee corrected the interviewer and clearly stated hospitalizations had not increased in the region. While the Western world imposes travel bans and has resorted to headlines filled with fear and dread, this doctor didn’t use her airtime to pander to the political narrative.
Omicron: Variants, Mutations, and Vaccines
Scientists remain uncertain whether the vaccine will have any efficacy over the new variant. With over 30 mutations in the spike protein, reactions have ranged from cautiously optimistic to scrambling to create a new vaccine. Moderna Chief Executive Stéphane Bancel, stated:
“There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level . . . we had with Delta,”1
Pfizer is hoping their boosters will be enough, but will work to develop new vaccines, just in case it isn’t.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech say a variant-focused vaccine could be ready in less than 100 days. Dolsten said Pfizer and BioNTech have already started to make a DNA template of a new vaccine construct, the next step in the development of a new vaccine after making the mRNA and the lipid envelope it will go into.
It’s not clear whether a new clinical trial would be needed for regulatory approval, based on Pfizer’s previous conversations with the FDA, Dolsten said. It’s possible that a booster focused on the Omicron strain could be authorized, based on studies that have already been done with vaccines based around the Beta and Delta variants.2
The World Reacts to Omicron
All cases detected remain mild, and with no increase in hospitalizations, yet Western nations have raced to enforce travel bans on many southern African nations. The leaders of these banned countries are calling the travel restrictions on their nations discriminatory.3
Scientists in a lab in Durban, South Africa notified the world leaders and health agencies as they started testing the current vaccines a short 36 hours after discovering the new variant. South Africa has led the way in epidemiological studies with HIV and other infectious diseases. They believed they did the right thing by reporting what they are seeing but were met with travel bans on their nations that they said would hinder their country’s economy and recovery.3
The omicron variant has now been found in several European countries, Israel, Canada, Japan, Australia, and others that are not restricted by travel bans. At the time of publication, over 20 countries had reported cases. Of the eight African countries under travel bans, only South Africa had reported cases.4
Singapore: No at Home Recovery; Must Go to Government for Isolation
In Singapore, those diagnosed with either confirmed or suspected omicron will not be allowed to recover at home. Health Minister, Ong Ye Kung said that instead, they will be required to report to a facility to quarantine and recover. The National Centre for Infectious Disease will manage the cases and monitor the isolations. The health minister of these cases states:
“If confirmed, he will be managed there until we are confident that he is not infectious through repeated testing. There is no option for HRP (home recovery programme) for this group of individuals,” Ong said.5
The director of the health ministry, Kenneth Mak made these statements:
“This is a more cautious stance simply because we don’t know what the behaviour of Omicron infection is… we feel it’s prudent to just isolate them further at this time,” said Associate Professor Mak.
By grouping any such cases at a single facility, the authorities can study them more closely and have better experience in dealing with Omicron infections, Prof Mak added.5