Shortcuts / 02 December 2021

Omicron

As much as we wish it wasn’t the case, Omicron is here and it’s a thing. And there are lots of questions about what that might mean… So in this Squiz Shortcut, we look at what’s different about the Omicron variant, what a variant even is, what it means for the current crop of vaccines, and vaccination inequality around the world.

Okay, let’s start with some terms. What exactly do we mean when we talk about COVID variants?
All viruses mutate or change. And when one mutates and behaves in a significantly different way to the original virus, it becomes known as a variant.  

Gotcha. So how are the COVID variants named?
The WHO has been designating names for strains of the coronavirus using the Greek alphabet. Alpha was the first variant, which was detected in December 2020 – that was the UK strain. Beta came around the same time from South Africa, then Gamma came from Brazil in January.

And then came Delta…
Yep, we’re all too familiar with that one now… Delta began as a variant of ‘interest’ in April and another month later the WHO upgraded it to one ‘of concern’, as case numbers exploded in India. Delta spread so fast that testing couldn’t keep up with the pace of transmission. 

So how did we get to naming Omicron?
Well, Omicron is the 13th variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but this time the WHO decided to skip past a couple of letters: Nu and Xi.

Why’s that?
The WHO reckons ‘Nu’ sounds too much like ‘new’, and ‘Xi’ is a very common surname. It also just happens to be the same spelling of the name of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping.

And that would have been quite the diplomatic challenge…
Yep, particularly because of all the argy-bargy with China over the past 2 years about the origins of COVID-19 in the country. 

Speaking of origins, Omicron seemed to come out of nowhere…
Indeed… It was just a week ago that scientists in South Africa alerted the World Health Organization to the possible new variant. 

And things have been progressing at warp speed since then…
They sure have. Exactly when it came into circulation and how far it has spread is unknown, but it was first detected in Botswana in southern Africa. 

Did Omicron originate there?
That’s still being looked into, and it’s a suggestion Botswana isn’t thrilled about… What their health minister says is that the new variant “was detected on 4 foreign nationals who had entered Botswana on the 7th November 2021, on a diplomatic mission”. They tested positive for COVID-19 on the 11th of November. And South African officials say they detected the strain in their country at about that time. 

So Omicron emerged in southern Africa but it might not have started there.
Exactly right. And it’s since emerged that the variant was already in the Netherlands a week before South Africa reported the new variant to the World Health Organization – that was on Thursday 25th of November. 

What makes it different from other coronavirus strains like Delta?
Well, after South African scientists did some testing they found that the Omicron strain had a new genomic sequence, which means it has a different DNA structure than other types of COVID-19. 

And what’s all this I’m hearing about mutations and spike proteins?
Basically, the spike protein is the part of the virus that latches onto the human body. Think about it like spiking into the cell and not letting go… Needless to say, it’s the first time that scientists have seen changes to this specific and important part of the virus. And whether or not that’s a cause for concern is still being investigated… 

Jeez… So what kind of effects is Omicron having?
Well, the good news is it doesn’t seem to be making people sicker than the original virus –  at least at this stage, anyway. South African doctors say it’s mainly hitting young people, leaving them exhausted and feeling sore with muscle aches. But they’re not getting so sick that they have to be hospitalised immediately.

But it’s still early days, right?
It is, and scientists are conducting tests into things like whether reinfection is a concern. That would be quite a thing because you’re meant to be immune and have lots of antibodies after you fall ill with a virus. 

And are vaccines another safeguard?
Yep – the WHO says they’re the best safeguard against serious illness and hospitalisation from COVID-19. But there are concerns that the current crop of vaccines won’t be so effective in fighting Omicron.

At least we’re well vaccinated here in Oz…
We are, but that’s not the case in the developing world. At the rate we’re going now, it’ll take another 3 months for 75% of the world to have received at least one dose of vaccine. 

What’s the hold-up?
Since the start of the global campaign, there’s been unequal access to vaccinations and varying degrees of efficiency at getting them into people’s arms.

How so?
For one comparison, before March this year, few African nations had received even a single shipment of shots. That’s compared to the US, where 138 doses have been administered for every 100 people.

So what are the vax numbers?
In our region, 2% of people in PNG have received both jabs. But the numbers are lowest in Africa, where just 6% of the continent’s 1.2 billion people are vaccinated. And in Sudan, just 1.3% are fully vaccinated.

What about Botswana, where the Omicron strain was first found?
Vaccination numbers are a lot higher than other countries in the region, with 19.7% of people double jabbed there. But it’s still a dramatically lower number than the West.

Hang on, wasn’t there supposed to be a plan where wealthy countries delivered vaccines to countries in need?
There is – it’s called COVAX. It’s run by the World Health Organisation under the theory that “nobody wins the race until everyone wins”. 

What’s happening with that?
COVAX has had some teething problems… It estimates it will deliver 1.425 billion doses by the end of 2021, significantly less than the 2 billion it was aiming for.

So what happened?
Well, there has been a range of problems… 

Lay it down for me.
Firstly, wealthy countries were buying up a lot of the initial supply of vaccines in 2020. But the biggest setback occurred in March this year when vaccine exports from India were suspended. 

Why was that such a big deal?
India is the world’s biggest manufacturer of COVID vaccines, but the country ended up deciding earlier this year to keep those doses for domestic use as it was being hit by a very nasty wave of Delta cases.

So what now?
The Indian Government now says it’s met all the orders placed by COVAX so far and expressed solidarity with African countries affected by Omicron. So COVAX co-chair – and former head of Australia’s federal health and finance departments – Jane Halton says COVAX is also looking to other donors and manufacturers for help. 

That’s all well and good, but will these vaccines still work for Omicron?
That’s the million-dollar question… The short answer is that it’s too early to know for sure. Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, says it’ll take another fortnight or so to get definitive advice on that. 

And what do the vaccine companies say?
The biotech companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are already tweaking their vaccines, and they reckon they can get them out in months.

Phew…
Yep – and in the meantime, the US and the UK are looking at bringing forward their booster shot program. And right now in Australia, it’s still recommended to wait 6 months to have a third jab, but that’s also under consideration due to Omicron.

So we’re talking about boosters, even when there aren’t enough vaccines to go around in the developing world?
Yep. And back to Jane Halton and COVAX, they say that Omicron is actually a thing because of vaccine inequality and wealthy countries hoarding vaccines. That’s because large unvaccinated populations are where mutations tend to occur. 

Sounds like there’s still a lot to figure out…
There sure is. 

Squiz recommends:

Bloomberg vaccination tracker

‘The Omicron variant: We know almost nothing’The Atlantic

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