Dutch health authorities announced on Tuesday that they found the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus in cases dating back as long as 11 days, indicating that it was already spreading in western Europe before the first cases were identified in southern Africa. The RIVM health institute said it found Omicron in samples dating from November 19 and 23.
Those findings predate the positive cases found among passengers who came from South Africa last Friday and were tested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
“It is not yet clear whether the people concerned [in the earlier cases] have also been to southern Africa,” the RIVM said, adding that the individuals had been informed of their Omicron infections and that local health services had started contact tracing.
Belgium and Germany have also said that sample tests confirm the variant was in those countries before South African health officials alerted the world on November 24 to its existence.
South African scientists had detected the new variant and alerted global health authorities to it last week. But Omicron has now spread to about 20 other countries, and amid mounting concern that it could be significantly easier to pass from person to person, and that it could have at least some resistance to current treatments and vaccines, many nations have imposed travel restrictions on passengers from southern African nations.
South African politicians and scientists have said they feel as though they’re being punished for their advanced COVID-19 screening program, which caught the variant and enabled other nations to respond quickly to it, but has resulted in the travel bans which largely target southern African nations.
A statement by the South African foreign ministry on Saturday strongly criticised the travel bans. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.
The bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker”. The statement added that the reaction had been completely different when new variants were discovered elsewhere in the world.
“What is going on right now is inevitable, it’s a result of the world’s failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner. It is as a result of hoarding [of vaccines] by high-income countries of the world, and quite frankly it is unacceptable,” said AU (African Union) vaccine delivery alliance co-chair Ayoade Alakija.
“These travel bans are based in politics, and not in science. It is wrong… Why are we locking away Africa when this virus is already on three continents?”
It remained unclear on Tuesday whether the Omicron strain makes people more severely ill than the already-well-known variants, but the World Health Organization has warned that the global risk it poses is “very high” based on early evidence.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has expanded its vaccine guidance on Monday night to recommend that all U.S. adults get a booster shot.
Vaccine efficiency against Omicron variant
Amidst fears that existing vaccines may be significantly less effective against Omicron, scientists, including the ones who developed the Covishield (Oxford University/AstraZeneca) vaccine, have reserved judgement, pointing to the lack of clear information and urging people to wait until current research yields real data from experiments on the variant. That’s expected to take up to two more weeks. Apart from advocating vaccine boosters, officials in US and UK are also advising a return to masking indoors.
However, an official of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) claimed that Covaxin is likely to be more effective against the highly-mutating Omicron variant than other Covid-19 vaccines.
“Covaxin is a whole virion-inactivated vaccine. It covers the entire virus, so it can work against this highly mutated new variant. Earlier it was found that Covaxin was effective against all the variants such as Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. So, we expect that it will be effective against the new variant as well. But till we get samples and test them, we have to be watchful… we expect that it will provide protection. Once we get samples, we will test the vaccine’s efficacy at the National Institute of Virology, Pune,” ICMR officials added.
Kedar Toraskar of Wockhardt Hospital echoed the observations. “Since Covaxin covers all antigen and epitopes and not just the spike protein like the mRNA or the adenovector vaccines, it may give a better protection against Omicron. We will require further studies and tests to back it up.”
Ever since the pandemic broke, the bias in Western behavior and media reporting has been apparent. Countries like Bharat have been vilified for actions like lockdown, although that tactic has been used by almost every country to arrest the spread of the virus, with far more violence as witnessed in Australia, for example.
The devastating second wave which crippled Bharat earlier this year was reported insensitively, with images of burning funeral pyres splashed across front pages – what was forgotten was that the pandemic had brought health care systems in richer nations like Italy and USA also to its knees.
Bharat’s indigenous vaccine, Covaxin, has faced hit jobs from both within and without. WHO dragged its feet to grant approval to Covaxin, unlike the alacrity with which it gave approval to Western and Chinese vaccines. Now it has emerged that Pfizer vaccine trials were compromised and its data might have been falsified.
The hoarding at a critical stage by US of vaccine raw materials needed by Bharat, and the vaccine hoarding that South Africa has alluded to, have completely exposed the hollowness of the international ‘rules-based system’.