‘Variant of concern’ spurs rapid new travel restrictions
Omicron, a new variant of Covid-19 first identified in South Africa and now detected in at least a dozen other countries around the world, has been identified as a potentially more transmissible strain, and has already led to a new wave of travel restrictions in the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Japan and Australia.
Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told CNN that the emergence of new variants like Omicron is connected to a failure to vaccinate the world quickly enough once vaccines became available, allowing the virus time to mutate.
Director of the NIH (National Institute of Health), Dr. Francis Collins says that there is no evidence yet to suggest that the Omicron variant causes more serious illness than previous variants.
“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the earmarks therefore of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another,” Dr. Collins told Dana Bash on CNN’s SOTU.
Dr. Collins told Dr. Bash that “we have no evidence that it is here in the United States,” although multiple media sources have reported at least two cases in the Canadian province of Ontario. Both were detected in people who had recently traveled from Nigeria.
Dr. Collins agreed with other experts who are encouraging Americans to use the weapons that we have already engineered to effectively fight this disease, including vaccines, booster shots and masks.
In an interview on CBS’ ‘Face the Nation,’ Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner and current Pfizer board member, said that at this time the most critical questions are whether the strain is more virulent, if it escapes natural or vaccine-delivered immunity and whether it possesses increased transmissibility.
Scientists around the world are racing to answer those questions, but answers are so far not forthcoming due to the recent discovery of the variant. Many, however, have expressed concern due to the high number of mutations observed in Omicron, particularly to the spike protein targeted by MRNA vaccines.
According to a report by the Washington Post and other national media outlets, the U.S. is planning to ban travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday. Many other countries are implementing travel bans as well, going against the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO), strongly warning against any knee-jerk reaction before more is known about this variant.
“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended. WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa in a statement issued by the WHO.
The “variant of concern” is already spreading across the globe, however, as cases have already been found in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong, according to a report by CNN.
Ultimately this new variant was only discovered days ago, and even the experts don’t have the answers yet as to what its ultimate impact may be.