Just when we thought we had come out of the dark from Delta, the lights dimmed once more with the discovery of Omicron.
The Omicron variant or B.1.1.529 as it is formally known, was first reported by South Africa to the World Health Organization on November 24 with the first known sample dating back to November 9.
The origins of Omicron are unclear. Though first sequenced in South Africa, a growing number of cases discovered in other parts of the world, thereafter, revealed no travel history to the region. This ominously suggests community transmission.
So, while it’s not entirely useless to close down borders, it is a bit late. And banning the entry of international travelers coming only from southern Africa seems a bit myopic if not misguided.
With heightened surveillance in the aftermath of its discovery, the presence of Omicron is now confirmed (as of this writing) in 24 countries.
Omicron is believed to have started circulating as early as the end of October. With travel restrictions lifted in many parts of the world in the last few months, Omicron crossed borders, undetected and undeterred.
So, while closing down borders is still useful for countries to buy time for the eventual arrival of Omicron to their shores, it is more useful to revisit health protocols for arriving international passengers from ALL countries.
As we know now, breakthrough infections do occur. International travelers, regardless of vaccination status, should continue to be tested in ports of origin before departure and upon arrival in their destinations. And while it truly puts a damper on travel, quarantine periods must still be observed.
Data from South Africa suggest that Omicron has a transmission advantage. This means it could potentially spark surges globally. The variant’s severity, however, has not yet been established. While cases seem mostly mild, it’s too early to tell. Until the same pattern in South Africa is replicated in different parts of the world, conclusions cannot be drawn.
The next few weeks will allow immunologists to have a better understanding of Omicron. Of great concern are the numerous mutations in Omicron’s spike protein which have the potential to make it more infectious and more agile in evading antibodies.
Omicron may or may not have originated from South Africa. But it no longer matters as its presence is no longer confined to that region. Instead of ostracizing South Africa, we should thank them for its efficient surveillance.
We should not panic but we should pay attention and exercise prudence in our actions. The pandemic is NOT over. We should continue to practice proven public health and safety measures. Get your boosters. Now.
It may be a long time coming. But we will see the light.
December 04, 2021
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