The world’s attention is now focused on Omicron, the newest and most worrying variant of the COVID-19 virus, as scientists scramble to learn more about it in the hope of stopping it in its tracks.
This strain of the virus first uncovered in South Africa by its scientists is said to display characteristics that could make it even more transmissible than the current Delta strain which has been the cause of the ongoing global spread of the disease following the initial Alpha variant.
Many countries including Cayman have taken a first preventive step against Omicron by restricting travel initially with South Africa and several other southern African countries where cases linked to the variants have been found.
The list of countries published by the Cayman Islands government at the weekend was Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe - along with Belgium where one case was reported at the time.
Since then the strain has turned up elsewhere including the UK where three cases were reported at the weekend, and The Netherlands where 13 people in a group of 59 passengers on a flight from South Africa have tested positive for the Omicron strain.
Other cases were previously reported in Hong Kong and Israel with additional findings popping up with increasing frequency in countries around the world.
The UK government has published a travel ‘red list’ and has also stipulated that people arriving from those countries will not be able to enter unless they are British, Irish nationals, or UK residents.
They will as have to go into quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days at their own expense.
The British government is also stipulating that face masks must be worn in shops and on public transport in England.
It says the new measures will be reviewed within three weeks based on what trend the Omicron variant takes.
The United States is reimposing a travel ban on South Africa and other affected southern African countries where the Omicron variant has been found.
U.S. citizens and permanent residents are exempt but they will need to show a negative COVID test before boarding their flight even if they are fully vaccinated.
Another test, three to five days after arriving in the US, is recommended.
There's been an uproar by the African countries which have been 'red listed' by the UK and other countries because of Omicron. They have criticised the decision calling it "selective and discriminatory" as it omits western countries where the variant has also been found.
Scientists and governments are concerned about the findings from their initial investigations into the variant due to the sheer number of mutations Omicron appears to carry.
With over 30 mutations identified, it's being labelled as a variant of concern with many unanswered questions about its potential severity.
Experts say they are looking into three main factors regarding Omicron: how quickly the variant spreads; if it’s capable of causing more serious disease; and whether it might be resistant to current COVID-19 vaccines.
They also say that Omicron can also be spread between people who are double vaccinated.
Companies that have been at the forefront of manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines say they are already conducting lab tests and hope to have a drug that responds to Omicron possibly by early next year.
While it’s still unclear just how severe the Omicron variant might be to those who contract it, scientists say so far symptoms appear to be mild, or its carriers asymptomatic.
With the world still grappling with the ongoing onslaught of the Delta COVID variant, the coming period is going to be critical in determining the trend of Omicron.
Against that background, a top virologist from Emory University in the US has noted: “It’s important to keep in mind that other variants of concern have emerged before, including immune-evasive variants like Beta, which was first identified in South Africa, but eventually petered out."