World on alert as new COVID-19 variant emerges

Just when it seemed like the world was getting past the pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO), on November 24, 2021, announced a new variant of the virus. It is called the Omicron, and its code name is B.1.1.529.

This new variant is reported to have a high rate of mutation and, therefore, has a growth advantage over the popular Delta variant.

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is believed to emerge from South Africa, and the country’s authorities and scientists are still busy trying to understand the implications of the new variant. While the World Health Organisation expresses pleasure over the early discovery of this new threat, the international health agency is also uneasy about the presence of the new virus strand and its mutation capabilities.

Azeddine Ibrahimi, a professor of Medical Biotechnology at Mohammed V University and head of Biotechnology Lab at Rabat Medical School, told Aljazeera news that the new variant of the COVID-19 virus has double the mutation of Delta, which currently dominates global infections. Already, this variant is rumoured to be present in many countries of the world. Many nations have begun imposing restrictions and travel bans to prevent the situation from getting worse.

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Omicron variant

In the United States of America, for instance, where the delta variant of the virus still ravages, the Omicron virus is suspected to be present. In response to this threat, President Joe Biden has imposed a travel ban from eight African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Eswatini and Lesotho.

According to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in the United Kingdom (UK), two cases of the new virus have been detected. In response to this reality, the UK has vowed to take targeted and proportionate measures to serve as a precaution against an eventual blowout. Also, the UK plans to slow down the rate of spread across the country while giving room for the health sector to prepare adequately to fight against the disease.

The UK government has now committed to a compulsory PCR test protocol for travellers after two days post-arrival and a self-isolation order till a negative test result is conformed for any inbound traveller.

The WHO has warned that the new variant has unique characteristics, making it more lethal than other currently known variants of the virus. This means that the characteristics of the Omicron virus significantly differ from others. Therefore, the riskiness of the B.1.1.529 strain is believed to be extreme, and its reinfection possibilities are high. Also, the WHO warns that this new variant may evade vaccine potency.

There are reports that the new variant has been detected in various countries like Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong, Australia, the UK, Germany, Czech Republic, Israel, and Italy. Government authorities in Germany, Italy, Israel, Singapore and Japan have tightened rules in response to the new variant gradually creeping into the various nations of the world. The US, Canada, UK, and EU states have initiated flight bans for South Africa and other South African boundaries.

The UK, for instance, has banned flights coming in from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini, while Israel is banning all foreign trips into her country in response to fears about the Omicron virus. Government response to the new virus strand in Australia includes a ban to individuals who have travelled to nine South African countries over the past 14 days, including South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Also, South Korean authorities have imposed restrictions on any inbound traveller from 8 suspected South African destinations. Accordingly, foreign nationals coming into South Korea from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique are banned from entry, South Korean authorities warn.

Already, news about the new variant’s spread has been impacting global markets asymmetrically. For instance, since the announcement of the Omicron variant, the DOW experienced a brief fall up to 1,000 points down. Also, the news was followed by a massive drop in global crude oil prices, the most significant drop since the pandemic began, according to Aljazeera news. It is feared that travel companies will be the hardest hit should the Omicron variant prevails in its mission to outperform the delta case massacre.

However, stocks in COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing companies began to swell as the new variant was announced. This is possibly due to anticipation of increased public and private investment in vaccination research, invention and supply in the bid to subdue the new variant quickly.

The WHO has advised the public all around the world to reduce their risk of exposure to the new and existing variants of the COVID-19 virus by adhering to public health and social measures. The international health agency still strongly advises appropriate masking, hand hygiene, social distancing, and proper indoor ventilation practices. Also, getting fully vaccinated against the virus is still an ongoing campaign that the agency strongly recommends to all individuals worldwide.

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