(Featured Image provided by Thomas Faull/Alamy Live News/Alamy Live News)
Just when we thought that the Alpha and Delta variants were already bad enough, a new covid variant, labeled the Omicron variant has just recently been identified in South Africa. The variant has different symptoms than normal and is rumored to be able to be spread faster, especially among younger people.
Around November 18th, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, was treating patients when she observed unusual symptoms. According to her, it started with a 33-year-old man who had been complaining about headaches and tiredness over the past few days. He had a “scratchy throat,” but no coughing or loss of taste/smell, symptoms that are associated with variants of covid. Regardless, Coetzee tested the man for covid and he tested positive, as well as other patients who came in that same day with similar symptoms. These developments caused Coetzee to alarm the country’s vaccine advisory council, who then later informed the World Health Organization (WHO).
Although Coetzee described the symptoms as “extremely mild,” numerous countries like the U.S, U.K, Israel and those in the European Union have already temporarily banned travel from African countries where the variants have been found, which has caused many to ask whether these countries are panicking too much. When asked this question Coetzee believed that the omicron variant has most likely already spread to these countries whether they know it or not. This was backed up by a statement on Monday by WHO Spokesperson Margaret Harris, who said that the new variant had already been found in France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, U.K, Canada, Hong Kong, and Australia, and that “we have South Africa to thank” for alerting WHO about the variant. Moreover, WHO has designated the omicron variant as a “variant of concern,’ as of last Friday.
Harris said that although they didn’t like to see travel restrictions being put up once again, the organization understands that these sorts of precautions are necessary. According to the United Nations (UN) health agency, the majority of deaths around the world are from the delta variant, so it will remain the biggest priority until more is known about the omicron variant. “Over 99% of cases around the world are due to the delta variant and more deaths are occurring in the unvaccinated,” said WHO Chief Scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, “I think that’s our priority while we wait to find out more about the variant.”
Remarkably, there haven’t been any reported cases of the omicron variant in the U.S (As of November 30th). However, Biden still isn’t taking any risks as it was one of the first countries to ban travel from several African countries after following the advice from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci. When addressing the new variant on Monday, Biden stressed heavily that the variant is “cause for concern, not a cause for panic” and for Americans to get vaccinated as quickly as they can. Biden said that the temporary bans give time for Americans to get the vaccine/boosters, as they are the best ways to fight against the new variant. “We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day,” said Biden.
Biden has also stated that the White House is planning to unveil a new strategy to fight covid during the winter, a plan that will not involve lockdowns or shutdowns. When questioned on his decision to leave shutdowns off the plan, he responded by saying: “If people are vaccinated and wearing their masks, there is no need for the lockdowns.”
WHO has also stated that it isn’t certain when more information will come and that it may take weeks before any developments are made. They said that it isn’t exactly clear if the variant is indeed more transmissible than its predecessors or if it might cause more severe disease. “The reality is we’ve only known about this virus for just over a week, so we don’t really have the kind of data required to answer those questions definitively,” said former co-chair of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee, Salim Abdool Karim.