SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has mutated literally thousands of times on its journey to bring healthcare systems, economies, and entire nations globally to their knees. Scientists around the world are studying these variants furiously, and this is certainly true for the Omicron variant. Because the pandemic has taught us all about variants and their potential consequences, countries are concerned for their already-strained economies and healthcare systems. What does the Omicron strain mean for the international community, individual countries, and the general pandemic response?
While the Omicron variant is being called a new “South African” variant, the very first case seems to actually have occurred in Europe – before it was discovered in Botswana. Samples from the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany confirm that the variant was present in those countries prior to South Africa’s announcement of their discovery on November 24th. (CBS News) Additional cases have been identified on other continents with no known contacts to anyone from Botswana or South Africa. This erodes the idea that this variant arose in South Africa. It was recognized and isolated there first – but that is not the same as the variant being “from” there.
The assumption that the Omicron variant originated in South Africa led to many nations inflicting travel bans on Southern Africa, barring entrance to their countries from Southern African countries. The consensus on the efficacy travel bans vary. By the time a variant is detected in one country, it is likely already to have or be spreading globally. According to the New York Times,
“The travel bans are intended to buy time as scientists determine whether the mutations in new variant will allow it to dodge existing vaccines. But they also seemed to suggest that core lessons from the early phase of the pandemic must be learned again: An infection discovered somewhere is likely everywhere — or may be soon enough — and a single case detected means many more undetected.”
Furthermore, reactive travel bans could de-incentivize countries from sharing public health data in the global forum because it could mean both economic and diplomatic damage as well as isolation with no obvious public health benefit. Salim Abdool Karim, Director of Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa and a Professor of Global Health at Columbia University spoke to PBS on how travel bans are ineffective and could be damaging. Karim said,
“If you have good surveillance systems and you have in place the mechanisms to identify a new variant and to identify it early, then whatever you do, don’t tell the world, keep it secret. Let some other country do the announcement so that you don’t have to bear the burden…”
Additionally, while the mostly-vaccinated West are grasping for assurances that the Omicron will be affected by the COVID-19 vaccine, the countries that are most hurt by these travel bans are also the ones reeling from lack of vaccinations. Wealthier countries have had the access and capital to buy vaccine doses for their citizens, while countries with less resources have not. In a speech on November 28th, South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa said, “Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing countries — economies, that is — to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay.”
Of course, the global community is concerned with the severity of the variant and whether vaccines will be able to protect against it. Preliminary reporting that the Omicron variant has a specific mutation that may allow it to evade the vaccine follows what we know from nature. HSR.health’s Ajay Gupta says of the new variant, “that the mutations that survive are those that help the organism thrive in its environment.”