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New COVID-19 Variant, ‘Omicron,’ Should Surprise No One

Nov. 26, 2021 (EIRNS)—The world is supposed to be shocked that a new COVID-19 variant has a whole host of mutations. The only real surprise, however, is that, with such an uneven rollout of vaccines, such a development didn’t occur before now.

The new variant, B.1.1.529, was tagged “Omicron” and labelled a “Variant of Concern” by the World Health Organization scientists on Nov. 26, Friday evening. It was evidently first discovered in Botswana in early November, however, most of the dozens of cases identified have been in South Africa’s Guateng Province. The heavily populated, though small province, includes the major city Johannesburg. South Africa has one of the world’s best genetic sequencing operations for identifying new strains of Covid.

Questions about its transmissibility, its virulence, and the efficacy of vaccines against it are now on the table. The unusually large number of mutations (ten, as opposed to two or three on the Delta and Beta variants) found on the spike protein is at the center of the concern. The spike protein is a feature of the virus that made it efficient in latching onto human cells, and, hence, is a key feature for the vaccines to target. The high transmissibility of both the original virus and, later, the Delta variant, suggests that the virus was at or near peak capability in infecting humans, so it has been thought that random mutations were not that likely to make a significant difference in transmissibility. However, the initial estimation, from genetic sequencing, that 90% of the recent cases in Guateng are the Omicron variant, speaks to the possibility of a very high transmissibility.

The other main concern, virulence, is even more unknown. Of note, the mutations on the spike protein could alter the shape of the spike, which then might lessen the efficacy of vaccines. The vaccine companies are at least a couple of weeks away from initial test results.

Not much discussed, but certainly worrisome, is that there was nothing about the known level of viral activity in Botswana or South Africa that made them stand out as a likely candidate for generating a new variant. Botswana, with 2.4 million people, is now at about three-to-four dozen new cases/day (in the ballpark of 6,000 cases/day for the U.S.). They last had significant known activity back in July, peaking at 2,400 such cases on July 31, and have been under 500/day for two months now. South Africa, a nation of 58.8 million, has been at about 350 official new cases/day recently (in the ballpark of 2,000/day for the U.S.), with a peak of 21,000 back on July 10, and a level under 1,600 for two months now. Various possibilities include that the intense levels of July and August brewed up a strain not noticed until early November, or that relatively moderate or low levels of viral spread can also generate such intense mutational levels. Neither possibility is good news.

Throughout Nov. 25-26, countries are closing down air flights from a group of African countries: South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini—though epidemiologists fear that the barn door is being closed too late. Early reports include closings by EU countries, the U.K., United States, China, India, Japan, South Korea. Besides the previous reports of Omicron cases in Botswana and South Africa, now Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium report cases.

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