/ 29 November 2021

OMG Omicron…

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THE SQUIZ
The World Health Organization (WHO) has named a new COVID variant of concern: Omicron. First picked up in Botswana and South Africa earlier this month, it was reported by South Africa to the WHO on Thursday last week. Here in Oz, 2 people from southern Africa tested positive for the mutated strain after arriving on a flight to Sydney from Doha on Saturday. Border restrictions have been tightened for travellers who have been to 9 African countries – non-Aussies are banned, and Aussies must undergo 14 days in quarantine. In other changes, all vaccinated travellers arriving in Victoria and New South Wales must isolate for 72 hours, regardless of the origin of their flight.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THIS VARIANT?
Not much, but the WHO says it’s concerning because of the ‘mutations’ to the spike protein, aka the part of the virus that connects to a human cell. That means Omicron might spread more quickly than Delta and be too powerful for the current crop of vaccines. Scientists are also investigating whether reinfection is a concern and if it causes more severe disease. Right now, South African doctors say Omicron has appeared in young people, leaving them exhausted with muscle aches but not so ill that they have to be hospitalised immediately. As for the name, the WHO decided to call the new variant ‘Omicron’, which involved skipping the letters ‘Nu’ and ‘Xi’ in the Greek alphabet. They did this to ‘avoid confusion’: they say ‘Nu’ sounds a bit like ‘new’, and ‘Xi’ is a common surname – and it also just happens to be the name of the Chinese President. Totes awks…

SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Sigh… COVID is very clearly not behind us, and the world is putting restrictions in place to slow Omicron’s spread. In England, masks will become mandatory in shops and on public transport, but UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described the move as “temporary and precautionary”. The US, UK, and many European nations are blocking flights from southern Africa, and Israel has gone one step further, banning all foreigners from entering the country. In response, South African authorities say they feel they’ve been punished rather than applauded for coming forward – and one researcher issued a “told you so” over the delay of vaccinations for the developing world. One ray of light: the company that developed the Pfizer jab says it could produce an updated vaccine in less than 4 months if Omicron is found to evade immunity. Fingers crossed it doesn’t come to that…

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