Updated: Dec 9, 2021
November 24, 2021, just one day before Thanksgiving, South African scientists notified the WHO that they had detected a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 called B.1.1.529. While using the customary PCR testing, a technician in a South African private lab had noticed that six different test samples showed an unexpected dropout in the virus’s gene sequence--a “missing snippet,” as it were. It was so unusual that they notified their boss, who, in a rare “you-gotta-see-this” moment, passed it up the chain to world-renowned South African epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim.
Naming this strain omicron, the WHO designated it a variant of concern (VoC) because there are as many as fifty different mutations on the virus’s spike protein, some of them overlapping with the alpha, beta, gamma, and delta SARS-CoV-2 variants, and oddly enough with the common cold virus, which is in the same Coronaviridae family. These mutations are suspect for increased transmissibility of the virus, and the Covid-19 positivity rates in South Africa have correspondingly risen by 24 percent in the two weeks since the discovery of the variant. Omicron's doubling time is an astonishing 36 hours.
Within only a couple of days of South Africa’s announcement, the Biden administration imposed a ban on travel from RSA and seven other surrounding countries. US citizens and/or their families are exempted from the ban, however. South African scientists were stunned by what appeared to be punishment for their due diligence and transparency. South Africa is one of the world’s leaders in genomic sequencing because it already has the needed infrastructure as a result of the HIV epidemic. In South Africa’s gene sequencing model, government and academic centers collaborate within a Network for Genomic Surveillance.
If it feels like you’ve seen this travel-ban movie before, it’s because you have. Eons ago in January, 2020, the former president of the United States instituted a ban on travel to the US from China, except for US citizens and their families. Impervious to anything even remotely factual, truthful, or scientific, the ex-president persisted in citing this as a prescient and wise move, even though it soon became clear that by the time the “China ban” had been imposed, the virus had already spread to Europe. This is the cockroach phenomenon: if you see one, they’re probably all over the place. The first omicron variant in the US was detected in San Francisco in a person who had recently traveled to RSA, but in the subsequent detected cases, some had no history of travel there, meaning that it had already been propagating in the US.
The move by the Biden Administration was explained as a means of “buying time,” but it was in fact a weak rationale and a rash decision. Omicron is an equal-opportunity infector with no particular preference for US citizens versus non-citizens arriving from South Africa. As Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies director, put it, “. . . Is it that some passport holders will have the virus, and some won’t? Does the virus read your passport?” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, "We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let's use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable.” [Bolding added.]
What the US should have done is tighten the travel requirements for everyone arriving from anywhere with a combination of Covid-19 testing and quarantining. Indeed, the Biden administration has now decreased the pre-travel Covid-19 negative test period from three days to one day. They should add a Covid test on arrival at international ports of entry, which is what the Republic of Ghana does at the Kotoka International Airport for the outrageous fee of $150.
Predictions are tricky, but the omicron variant seems to be more transmissible while less deadly than delta. The irony is that in the US, we haven’t even dealt satisfactorily with delta, and the SARS-CoV-2 infection rate is still a staggering 120,494 per day, primarily in unvaccinated people. This scenario is like worrying that venomous snakes will get inside the house when we already have ferocious alligators in the kitchen.
What omicron is telling us is that no country is safe until all countries are safe. In its report, The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change warns that the present global Covid vaccine inequity is a setup for the rise of potentially more virulent Covid strains if the virus is allowed to circulate unchecked in Africa.
Only 7.2 percent of the African continent is vaccinated, and at this rate, Africa could become a reservoir for variants. Notwithstanding their promises, the world’s most advanced economies have failed miserably to share vaccines with low-income countries. One reason, as described by Peter Certo of FPIF is greed combined with patent protections.
Blanket travel bans are ultimately an ineffective blunt weapon. We can’t implement a travel ban every time a new strain of the virus appears. Speaking on a WBUR Radio podcast recently, Dr. Karim proposes steps the world’s governments and scientists can take: First, prepare for and expect emerging variants, because that’s what SARS-CoV-2 does. Second, to the extent possible, sharpen virus surveillance worldwide to detect and identify variants, and instead of reacting out of panic and fear when they emerge, countries should share information between and among themselves according to a governing set of agreed-upon rules.
This kind of cooperation is crucial, because SARS-CoV-2 is almost certainly here to stay and we may need a “booster” vaccine dose tweaked annually according to the virus’s profile. Another “new normal?” Probably. Just add it to masks and physical distancing.