Hearts are sinking. Baie het gehoop die ergste van die pandemie was verby, geniet 'n terugkeer na kwasi-normaliteit ondanks waarskuwings dat hierdie winter strafbaar kan wees. Nou Covid cases are surging across Europe; rates are rising in the UK again after a half-term dip; and the new Omicron variant detected in South Africa is ringing alarm bells across the world.
At present we have a limited understanding of how much of a threat this variant poses, though the World Health Organization has classified it “of concern”. The fear is that its multiple mutations – 32 on its spike protein, the key it uses to unlock our body’s cells – could mean antibodies from previous infections or vaccination may not counter it so well. Scientists are also looking at its interaction with another aspect of the immune system: T-cells. A surge of cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province is increasing anxiety about its transmissibility. We do not yet know whether it may cause more severe disease. Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser of the UK Health Security Agency, described it as “the most worrying we’ve seen”, while the health secretary, Sajid Javid, gewaarsku: “It may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it. It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments.”
This is the case for swift action – even if it ultimately proves unnecessary. We have repeatedly seen that precautionary actions have relatively low economic and social costs and can easily be scaled back, while a delayed reaction costs lives and increases the risk that severe restrictions will be needed – as last winter. The question is which measures are appropriate. Though the UK and others have halted flights from several southern African countries, the variant has already spread beyond them: Belgium announced one case on Friday; Israel has found at least three. Some feel that cutting off transport links is simply punishing South Africa for its expertise and transparency, in finding and disclosing a variant which may have originated elsewhere, and suspect that action would have been slower had the variant emerged in Europe or the US.
But while suspending travel cannot stop the variant’s spread, some believe it may buy precious time to get more doses into arms, improve public awareness and introduce stronger disease control measures. That time should be used wisely. Mandatory masking should never have been a plan B; the government should reintroduce it now, along with vaccine passports for large events and adequate financial support for the sick or isolating.
Op dieselfde tyd, Suid-Afrika and neighbouring nations must be given all the support they need. In poorer countries, people will be additionally susceptible due to malnourishment, existing health problems, overcrowded conditions and healthcare systems that already fail to meet their basic needs.
This variant is a powerful reminder that failing to distribute vaccines equitably is a failure not only of ethics but of self-protection: the more the virus circulates, the greater the risk of new variants. Suid-Afrika, Botswana and others have long called for the waiving of intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines, tests and treatments. Though the US has backed that call, the EU, UK and others still hold out – while the west fails to share existing doses. South Africa’s current problem is not one of supply but of vaccine rollout, with a high degree of vaccine scepticism. But its delayed start did not help, and other African nations with much lower rates of vaccination are still struggling to obtain doses.
Though the pandemic is far from over, it will end one day; and though humans cannot determine its course, our actions do have an impact upon it. The dedication of scientists, medical staff and other key workers has mitigated its worst aspects. The rest of us must do our part too.