Five Things You Need to Know About the New Omicron Variant

As with previous variants, the first step to addressing Omicron is widespread vaccination. Photo: ADB
As with previous variants, the first step to addressing Omicron is widespread vaccination. Photo: ADB

By Patrick Osewe

Scientists are racing to learn more about the new, possibly more transmissible strain of COVID-19. Stepping up vaccinations should be a starting point of the global response.

Scientists in South Africa and Botswana recently notified health authorities of a new COVID-19 mutation. Rapidly identified and shared through ongoing genomic surveillance, the new mutation, named Omicron, was designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization less than a week after its discovery.

Variants of concern tend to be more transmissible, more likely to evade detection, and less responsive to vaccines and therapeutics. While international scientists scramble for more information on this latest variant, here’s a quick summary of what we know:

What are the new variant’s characteristics: How transmissible is it? Will it lead to severe illness? Will vaccines protect against it? Scientists are still gathering data on many of the variant’s characteristics. However, early findings from South Africa suggest that the variant may be more transmissible, while WHO has indicated that there may be increased risk of reinfection as compared to other variants (including for people who have been previously infected). However, no deaths related to the Omicron variant have been reported so far. Experts have stated that roughly two or three more weeks are needed to better understand many aspects of the new variant—including the true nature of the variant’s severity, transmissibility, and ability to evade vaccines.

How long will it take vaccine manufacturers to tweak their vaccines to address the variant and develop a booster? While current vaccines may continue to work against the Omicron variant, experts have advised that booster doses may also be needed. Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are already preparing to tweak their vaccines to address this concern. A precise timeline remains uncertain, although vaccines that utilize mRNA technology can be adapted more rapidly. According to both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, a new shot could be produced and approved within a few weeks, if necessary, with batches shipped within 100 days.

What can individuals do to protect themselves against the new variant? Based on current guidance, the most important thing an individual can do to reduce transmission and protect themselves against the virus is to get vaccinated. Even as the world awaits more information about how effectively the current vaccines will protect against the variant, all the WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines have proven effective in preventing severe illness and death from the virus.

Not only does vaccination protect an individual from COVID-19 infection, it protects family members, friends, neighbors and communities by preventing the circulation and mutation of the virus. Additionally, individuals should continue to follow COVID-19 non-pharmaceutical interventions such as sanitizer (washing hands), social distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding large crowds.

This has re-emphasized the fact that nobody is safe until everyone is safe, and the COVID-19 virus will continue to mutate and spread particularly in countries where most people are un-vaccinated. 

What can developing countries do to prepare for and slow the spread of the new variant? In Asia and the Pacific, where only approximately one quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, the best defense developing countries have against a surge of the new variant is to rapidly implement large-scale vaccination programs as vaccines become available. Supported by current scientific evidence and recent lessons learned, and also in alignment with the investment priorities of major development financing institutions, this includes strengthening surveillance systems to trace adverse epidemiological events and collect data on variants; readying vaccine service delivery systems for mass vaccination campaigns; and developing robust and targeted risk communication to address vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.

As observed in earlier COVID-19 variant strains, the widely used RT-PCR tests continue to detect the Omicron variant effectively. While testing is still the best window into the pandemic and its progress, countries should expand their screening mechanisms and ensure that they have a robust testing infrastructure. They should also have the capacity to plan for the introduction of antiviral medications. Antiviral COVID-19 treatments, like the Monulpiravir antiviral pill recently developed by Merck and the Paxlovid pill developed by Pfizer, may provide a way to significantly reduce hospitalization rates, especially in countries with low vaccination rates.

What should the world prioritize as fear of the new variant spreads? Health equity should remain a priority. That means delivering the doses already promised to low and middle-income countries and helping those countries overcome the hurdles that prevent doses from reaching people’s arms—such as weak health care systems with limited logistical, infrastructure, or human resource capacity to implement mass vaccination campaigns.

Health equity also means not penalizing transparency. The rapid and transparent reporting of data from South Africa and Botswana prompted global action to contain the variant. It also triggered several countries to restrict travel from southern Africa. There should be a balance between transparency and introduction of travel restrictions. Otherwise, travel restrictions have the potential to harm global cooperation and hinder sharing of specimens that could shed light on new variants.  It could also dis-incentivise countries from sharing information with the global scientific community—making detection of mutations and other critical information even more challenging in the future.

With the glaring disparities in vaccination rates that exist between wealthy and poorer countries, this new variant has sounded an even louder alarm to scale-up vaccination across the globe. We don’t need another variant to show us how interconnected we are. Indeed, the new variant and the pandemic at large have only reinforced what we already know. This has re-emphasized the fact that nobody is safe until everyone is safe, and the COVID-19 virus will continue to mutate and spread particularly in countries where most people are un-vaccinated. 

The only way to win the war against the pandemic is to show solidarity and keep working together.