Thursday, March 23, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

World seized by fear of highly mutated omicron strain

The discovery of a new potentially highly dangerous strain of the coronavirus has put the world on high alert and opened rifts between richer and poorer countries once again as travel bans are imposed on southern African nations.

(CN) — Fear of the newly discovered omicron variant gripped the world on Monday as scientists raced to discover how dangerous this highly mutated coronavirus strain is and governments closed their borders to international travelers.

The new strain was first detected in South Africa and Botswana last week and on Friday the World Health Organization classified it as a variant of concern, labeling it with the Greek letter omicron. On Monday, the United Nations health agency warned it poses a “very high” risk.

Since then, infections caused by the omicron strain have been found in an increasing number of countries around the globe. Europe – already crushed by a fresh wave of sickness as the weather gets colder – is discovering omicron cases in many countries with most of them linked to travel to southern Africa, such as 13 found among 61 passengers who tested positive for Covid-19 on two flights from South Africa to the Netherlands.

But on Monday cases were detected in Scotland involving people with no record of travel, indicating the virus may have been circulating for a while there.

In response, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, European Union nations and other countries are restricting travel from southern African nations. Japan, Israel and Morocco went a step further and are barring all international travelers.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is lashing out at the travel bans, calling them unfair and unwarranted.

“We need to resist unjustified and unscientific travel restrictions that are damaging the economies and sectors of the economies that rely on travel,” Ramaphosa said during a speech at the opening of the China-Africa Summit in Senegal. “There is a world order where a country's wealth is the difference between sickness and health.”

Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera said on Facebook that the travel bans “are uncalled for.”

“We are all concerned about the new Covid variant and owe South Africa's scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did,” he said. “Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the EU's executive body, said the world was in a “race against time” against the omicron variant and that restrictions are needed to stem its spread.

“The scientists and manufacturers need two to three weeks to have a full picture about the quality of the mutations of this omicron variant,” she said. “We need to buy time.”

People wear face masks as they walk on Regent Street in London on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)

It is still too early to know how dangerous this strain is and scientists say they will need at least a couple of weeks to understand how contagious it is and how effective vaccines are against the strain's mutations, many of which are new and unusual. Vaccine makers say they will be able to tweak vaccines if needed, though that could take 100 days.

Meanwhile, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a South African doctor who identified the new strain, told the BBC that people infected with it so far have mostly had mild symptoms, but this may be due to its initial detection mostly among younger university students. South Africa has seen a rapid rise in cases and the new strain may be behind this spike.

On Monday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, reprimanded richer countries for hoarding vaccines. For the past year, the WHO has warned that dangerous strains of the novel coronavirus will pop up until much of the world's population is immune and it has repeatedly chided richer countries for not distributing more vaccines to poorer countries.

“Omicron's very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we're done with Covid-19, it's not done with us,” Tedros said in a speech at a World Health Assembly, a United Nations meeting of government health officials.

“We cannot end this pandemic unless we solve the vaccine crisis,” he told the assembly, which is meeting in Geneva to discuss adopting a new global treaty on preventing future pandemics.

The WHO wants countries to sign the treaty so the world doesn't repeat the mistakes committed in fighting this pandemic, such as China's initial reluctance to provide information about the outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019 and the refusal by richer countries to share vaccines.

“Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics,” Tedros said.

Unlike ever before, he said humans can predict and prevent pandemics but the world is failing to coordinate its efforts.

“Here we are entering the third year of the most acute health crisis in a century and the world remains in its grip,” he said. “We're living through a cycle of panic and neglect. Hard won gains could vanish in an instant.”

He said it was wrong that more than 80% of vaccines against Covid-19 have gone into the arms of people in the richest countries and less than 1% have gone to poorer countries. He said only one out of every four health workers in Africa has been vaccinated.

“No country can vaccinate its way out of the pandemic by itself,” Tedros said. “We're all in this together.”

“The emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled in a precise way the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccines would speed its evolution,” Dr. Richard Hatchett, the head of Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a foundation working with WHO to distribute vaccines, told the health assembly.

With less than 25% of the population vaccinated, South Africa and Botswana were a “fertile environment” for the evolution of this new strain, he said.

“The virus is a ruthless opportunist and the inequity that has characterized the global response has now come home to roost,” he said, urging world leaders to adopt a pandemic treaty.

“Epidemics and pandemics are one of the greatest threats we will face in the 21st century, next to climate change perhaps the greatest,” Hatchett said. “To counter them in the future we must learn from this experience. We cannot rely on the uncoordinated actions of nearly 200 sovereign states.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.