COVID: Early Action Against Omicron Is Imperative

A healthcare worker conducts a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test on a traveller at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg after several countries banned flights from South Africa following the discovery of a new variant Omicron. (AFP Photo)

It was only a matter of time before a new SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern emerged, requiring an urgent global response. 

It would seem that the Omicron variant, identified by scientists across Africa, including the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), poses the next major threat in the course of the pandemic. Early evidence from their genomic surveillance suggests that this new variant is a serious cause for concern and it is imperative that we act fast in response to this new information.

The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong, and will undoubtedly continue to arise in other territories in the coming days; travel-related cases have appeared in Belgium and Israel. Two cases of the new variant have been detected in the United Kingdom at the time of writing.

When Omicron was first detected, viral genomic experts already noted a large number of changes relative to the original Wuhan strain. Worryingly, a significant number of these mutations are linked to the spike protein, which the virus uses to infect our cells, and some of these were changes known to be responsible for either faster transmission or immune escape in other strains. However, it is possible that other changes in this strain made the virus less good at transmission.

It appears that the Omicron variant is on the rise. The South African researchers could be more confident of this due to a quirk in the virus also seen in the Alpha variant; there is a change that affects the readout of some of the routine PCR tests (“S-gene target failure”). This means that the South African researchers could reprocess the routine tests they have to create an effective proxy for the rise of this variant. The strong growth inferred by proxy (albeit from a low baseline), and the sequence information we have, means that there is a high likelihood this is either a more transmissible or immune-system evading virus, or some of both.

There is not yet data to suggest that the Omicron variant increases the severity of disease or resistance to our current vaccines. This will require future laboratory investigation and continued surveillance in many countries over the coming weeks. And we should consider this potential immune-escape discovery, which was on nearly every epidemic plan, in the context of our progress: genomic sequencing identified the new variant at high speed; thanks to open data-sharing, the global scientific community was alerted to it and has sprung into action - yet again - to understand what the dangers are.

Finally, our experience and understanding of the Alpha and Delta variants make it clear that early action is far better than late response. It may turn out that this variant is not a major threat, but the consequences of not acting early could be devastating.

The real heroes of this story, though, are the Botswanan and South African scientists who rapidly assembled data, delivered insightful analysis, and were open and transparent about their results.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The ASEAN Post.