By staff writer
The next few weeks are crucial as governments and health experts rush to grapple with the latest challenge thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The emergence of the Omicron variant has become a global priority 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 that country’s scientists, is said to display characteristics that could make it even more transmissible than the current virulent Delta strain.
Already several countries have adopted a series of measures they describe as precautionary in response to the potential threat of Omicron. Mask mandates are now being more vigorously enforced along with an aggressive campaign to boost vaccinations including booster shots. 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 were first identified.
In just over a week since the news broke of the discovery of this new variant, reports of cases have been increasing across the world leading to concerns that if it maintains its current pattern of spread it could seriously disrupt the gains made in battling the Delta variant.
The World Health Organisation has cautioned that initial studies suggest that the Omicron variant may spread more quickly than other variants of Covid-19 with preliminary findings indicating that it might also pose an increased risk of reinfection. Some countries have imposed severe travel restrictions and quarantine requirements with Japan imposing a temporary ban on international arrivals by non-citizens.
UK and US restrictions
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. All international arrivals must take a Day 2 PCR test and self-isolate in a government-approved hotel at their own expense until they receive a negative test. The British government is also stipulating that face masks must be worn in shops and on public transport in England with fines starting at £200 (US$266.85) now being slapped on violators. In the UK, 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. US 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 is also present.
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. Research is continuing. With more than 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 and its likely impact on economic recovery and public health.