When a highly mutated new coronavirus variant was discovered in southern Africa on Friday, the world reacted with alarm. The United States, the European Union, and countries around the world imposed new travel restrictions, financial markets plummeted, and hopes of finally escaping the pandemic began to dwindle.
Only two days after the world heard about the variation, the World Health Organization formally classified it as a “variant of concern,” the organization’s most dangerous classification – the organization’s first such designation since the Delta variant was discovered a year earlier. In this case, it indicates that the variety possesses mutations that might make it more infectious or virulent, or that could make immunizations and other preventative measures less effective – but none of these effects have been shown as of yet.
Following an emergency meeting, the World Health Organization issued a statement warning that “preliminary data implies an increased risk of reinfection with this variation” in those who had previously contracted Covid-19. The new letter was given the name Omicron, which is consistent with the tradition of naming variations for letters of the Greek alphabet.
The World Health Organization and experts from across the world have emphasised that little is known about the Omicron variety at this time, and that it is unclear if the hazards it brings will outweigh the worries it has stoked. South African experts confirmed the virus’ presence on Wednesday, and the number of confirmed cases, all of which occurred within the last three weeks, is still in the low hundreds.
After almost two years of being accused of being too sluggish and timid in dealing with the epidemic, many politicians would rather risk overreacting to a new danger than underreacting to an old one, as indicated by the quick worldwide reactions.
On Friday, Israel, Singapore, several European countries individually, and then the European Union as a whole, the United States, and Canada followed the lead set by the United Kingdom on Thursday night, temporarily barring foreign travellers who had recently visited South Africa or any of several neighbouring countries from entering their respective countries and entering their respective countries. Following the precedent set by previous travel restrictions, governments are letting their own citizens and permanent residents to return home if they test negative for the virus, while some require extra testing and isolation once they arrive in the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced in a statement Friday night that no instances of Omicron had been detected as of yet, despite the swift implementation of travel restrictions. Omicron, like previous variations, is likely to spread and reach the United States, officials added.
Officials from the administration have already begun discussions with vaccine manufacturers about the possibility that they will have to reformulate their vaccines in order to address the variant, according to a second administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations. But first, scientists would have to establish that current vaccinations are, in fact, less effective against Omicron, which is estimated to take many weeks, if not months.
Around the globe, stock indices and oil prices plummeted as news of the variation and travel restrictions — which came during the economically crucial Christmas season — stoked worries of still greater financial devastation caused by the epidemic. This past Friday, the S&P 500 index saw its worst day since February, plunging 2.3 percent, while European stock markets plunged between 3 and 5 percent. Benchmark oil futures in the United States sank by 13 percent, while those in Europe fell by 11 percent.
Scientists have discovered approximately 50 mutations in the genome of the Omicron variant that distinguish it from other variants, which is significantly more than any other variant previously discovered. These mutations include more than 30 on the spike protein, which the virus uses to bind to host cells.
Modifications to the spike protein are especially concerning since antibodies that combat the virus — whether produced by infection or vaccination — detect and target the spike protein as their primary target.
The variation has also been discovered in a small number of persons in Botswana, Belgium, Israel, and Hong Kong, but recent experience with similar variants implies that when the initial instances are discovered, it is probable that many more have gone undiscovered.
When the worldwide reaction was sent to South Africa, politicians and business leaders responded angrily. The country put its excellent illness monitoring and research systems to good use, and it rapidly shared the findings with the rest of the globe, only to have its openness belittled by the imposition of harmful travel restrictions.
When the Omicron form was discovered, the reaction in Europe was particularly swift and severe. Europe has been the hub of the worldwide epidemic for the last several years, with battles over vaccinations and social restrictions becoming more bitter.
The number of reported coronavirus infections in Europe has increased dramatically, from around 700,000 cases per week in early September to 2.6 million cases per week now. After starting in less-vaccinated Eastern European countries, the outbreak moved to fully vaccinated western countries that had assumed they would not be at risk and were thus caught off guard.