The Surge in the New COVID-19 Variant in South Africa: A Threat to the Healthcare System and a call for global unity.

The authors discuss the need for a global response to new COVID-19 variants…

The COVID-19 has been very unpredictable thus far, and it has once again surprised us, agitating and disorienting our scientists, medical professionals, and the general public. A new COVID-19 variant, the B.1.1529 known as Omicron, has been discovered. It was first confirmed from a specimen collected on November 9th.

The Omicron was first identified in South Africa, and it quickly was discovered that it has already been in circulation among other countries too. It became a concern due to its extremely high mutation rate. It is thought to contain a total of 32 unusual mutations to the spike proteins, which are used by most vaccines to prime the immune system against COVID-191. Scientists are concerned that due to the high number of mutations, this variant may become more transmissible than the Delta variant, resulting in immune evasion 2,3.

Viruses mutate all the time, and the COVID-19 is no exception, but most mutations have little impact on the virus’s behavior and the illness it causes. The mutations in the Omicron variant, on the other hand, are very concerning; it is the most mutated version of the virus we have seen to date, as it contains some changes seen previously in other variants all together 3. This strain contains mutations in the Delta variant that are thought to increase transmissibility, as well as mutations in the Beta and Delta variants that are thought to promote immune escape 4.

Because of the grave concerns and uncertainty raised by the new variants, a number of countries, including the United States, Germany, and Canada, have taken swift and drastic measures to halt their spread 5. The United States and the United Kingdom have issued a red list restricting foreigners from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Japan has announced that South African travelers will be subjected to a 10-day quarantine period, during which they will be subjected to a total of four tests5. And a slew of other countries, each with their own set of restrictions and prohibitions.

The South African Minister of Health has strongly criticized these bans, calling them unacceptable because the new variant is the result of the world’s failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent, and timely manner due to vaccine hoarding by high-income countries. He went on to say that the travel bans are based on politics, not science, and that the reactions in other parts of the world were completely different when new variants were discovered.

The affected countries, multilateral agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and the international scientific community must devise very effective and implementable strategies to address the threats posed by this new variant as soon as possible. Additional restrictions should be imposed on the affected countries in order to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant within the affected countries, subregions, and to other parts of the world. Precautionary measures such as social distancing, hand washing with soap under running water, the use of alcohol-based sanitizer, mask-wearing, and isolation of infected people should be made mandatory and strictly enforced globally. There should be a well-planned, effective global sensitization and education campaign against the devastating effects of the variant and everything related to COVID-19.

Most importantly, the combat against Omicron should not be treated as a South African or an African problem. The international community should commit significant resources to research into Omicron and how to combat COVID-19. There should be international coordination and cooperation on how to increase Omicron surveillance and contact tracing in communities around the world. As part of the efforts to combat the spread and treatment of Omicron, there should be well-accepted international protocols in place to enforce more humane travel restrictions. However, the Omicron variant, as well as COVID-19, must not be used as a pretext by some countries for immigration control.

More health specialists, such as health safety professionals, are needed to be trained and in high demand around the world, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LIMCs). This step is necessary in order to deal with future pandemics like the COVID-19 pandemic and its variants like Omicron, which are wreaking havoc on the world. To combat this concerning global emergency, the entire world must band together.

 

REFERENCES:

  1. McKenzie, D., Kottasová, I., & Smith-Spark, L. (2021, November 27). Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant with a high number of mutations, sparks travel bans and worries scientists. CNN. Retrieved December 14th, 2021, from https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/26/africa/new-covid-variant-discovered-south-africa-b11529-intl/index.html.
  2. Desert News (13th December, 2021). Explainer: Scientist reveal the potential real origin date for the omicron variant. Retrieved December 13th, 2021, from https://www.deseret.com/coronavirus/2021/11/29/22807482/omicron-variant-covid-when-did-it-start-origins-coronavirus
  3. Guardian News and Media. (2021, November 26). Who to assess new highly mutated COVID-19 variant as countries ramp up health checks. The Guardian. Retrieved December 13th, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/26/who-to-assess-new-highly-mutated-covid-19-variant-as-countries-ramp-up-health-checks.
  4. (2021, November 29). Explainer: What we know about Omicron, the new COVID-19 variant in South Africa. 9News Breaking News. Retrieved December 13th, 2021, from https://www.9news.com.au/world/explainer-new-variant-covid-19-discovered-south-africa/801c1ba9-11ea-499e-82be-829e1f839872
  5. (2021, November 27). Covid: New variant classed ‘of concern’ and named Omicron. BBC News. Retrieved December 13th, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-59438723?piano-modal.

 

AUTHORS

1. Wireko Andrew Awuah, a 5th year medical student at Sumy State University and also an International ambassador for the Canadian Medical Association.

2. Abiola Asekun, a Nigerian 4th year international medical student at Sumy State University. She is a proud medical student member of the American Academy of Neurology.

3. Ekpe Onyinyechi Peace Ibitoru, a Nigerian 6th year medical student at Sumy State University

4. Toufik Abdul-Rahman, a Ghanaian 5th year International Medical student at Sumy State University and the CEO of Toufik’s World Organization.

5. Shekinah Obinna Amaka is a Nigerian 6th year medical student at Sumy State University, Ukraine. She currently works as an Editor for MSPress Journal and as a Reviewer for Harvard Public Health Review.

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