A worrying new strain shows that the virus has not been defeated
Two years after its appearance in Wuhan, the Corona virus has not lost its ability to cause bad shocks. The worrisome Omicron variant is showing signs that it may be more transmissible than the highly contagious Delta strain, and able to evade vaccines. If so, it threatens to deal a serious setback to efforts made so far to end the pandemic. If not – and this will only become clear in the coming weeks – the world will breathe a sigh of relief. Until then, Omicron will have provided a warning that with millions yet to be fully vaccinated, a strain with dangerous new characteristics could emerge at any moment.
The swift reaction by scientists sounded the alarm, and governments – including the UK, which had often been slow to respond before – in enforcing quarantines and banning flights from many South African countries, has bought at least some time. However, other countries should realize that flight restrictions will impose particular hardship on developing economies and be ready to provide assistance – above all by expediting the supply of vaccines. If the additional risk posed by the Omicron variant turns out to be less than feared, controls should be lifted quickly.
Determining this risk will require further laboratory and epidemiological analyzes. For now, the alerts are worrisome. An unusually high number of 50 omicron mutations – 32 in the key spike protein – are associated with the ability to evade the immune system and spread faster.
The critical question is whether current vaccines will maintain their effectiveness. Even if they did, if the new strain proved to be significantly more contagious than the delta variant, its faster spread among the unvaccinated population would still lead to higher cases of severe disease and mortality.
The time window opened by the rapid scientific response is short. Experience shows that it is ultimately impossible to prevent new strains from spreading throughout the world; Within days, cases of Omicron were found in Israel, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and several European countries. The window should be used for maximum effect: to prepare responses, condense vaccines that might at least help reduce serious disease, and look at modifying existing vaccines. Restrictions must remain proportionate while determining the level of risk. But it is also wise to increase measures that do not amount to complete closures that can prevent the spread, such as wearing masks in public.
Any more ferocious wave would come at a precise time. The economy is recovering, especially in developed countries. But extended supply chains and labor shortages – which can be exacerbated by renewed lockdowns – are fueling inflation. Central banks will have to take these risks into account in carefully-balanced decisions about monetary tightening.
The big lessons for the new breed are twofold. One is the value of genetic monitoring in providing advance alerts, and the need to disseminate them further. While South Africa has once again demonstrated its expertise, more than 80 percent of the Sars-Cov-2 genomes uploaded to a global repository came from North America and Europe.
The second, again, is the importance of accelerating vaccine supplies to low-income countries. Omicron may have appeared nowhere. But there has long been a concern that delays in vaccinating the developing world – beyond ethical issues – could leave large reservoirs of infection in which potentially vaccine-resistant mutations can occur and then spread globally. Ensuring equitable access is more important than ever if the world is to win what, as it is now clear, is a protracted war of attrition against the virus.