Monday 17 January 2022
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Omicron scare another attempt to deflect attention from China?

Along the lines of scaring the world about an “Indian” variant when the second wave of the pandemic of Covid-19 hit the world, even though the strain had arrived from the UK to India, for the past 48 hours, if not more, the media has been playing up the news of Omicron, the name assigned to a mutant of the virus of Chinese origin that was detected first in South Africa.

The parts of this report where scientists speak show clearly that they are not sure of the origin of the said coronavirus variant and yet the media is harping on South Africa for the past two days.

No such effort to defame China was observed even as science journals and intelligence agencies alike were saying that (a) China had lied about the date and magnitude of the outbreak in 2019, (b) this was a biological agent that either leaked due to the incompetence of Beijing or (c) it was a weapon of mass destruction that was unleashed on the world deliberately.

The discovery of the mutant has sparked strong reactions across the world, with a number of countries banning travellers from not only the said country but also several countries neighbouring it.

The World Health Organisation, disgraced last year for delaying the announcement of the pandemic while its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was enjoying the hospitality of President of China Xi Jinping, announced yesterday that it had designated the newly identified coronavirus variant, B.1.1.529, as a variant of concern, named Omicron.

The ‘experts’ skipped two letters Nu and Xi from the Greek alphabet, the order that is being used to name coronavirus mutants, and chose Omicron instead. In fact, Nu had started trending on social media platforms after the news of a new Covid variant came out as Nu was the possible choice for the name of this new variant, which is believed to be more transmissible than the other variants.

Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. The letter is derived from the Phoenician letter ayin.

Epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff exposed the agency’s hypocrisy.

WHO has found an excuse, of course. Its officials say Nu has been avoided as the letter is confusing with the English word new. And Xi has been avoided so that the name is not misconstrued as a reference to Chinese premier Xi Jinping.

Senior Editor of The Telegraph Paul Nuki shared a quote from a source in WHO who said the alphabets have been deliberately avoided. “Nu had been skipped to avoid confusion with the word new and Xi had been skipped to avoid stigmatising a region,” the court read, without mentioning the region.

But observers are not impressed. US Senator Ted Cruz wrote on Twitter: “If the WHO is this scared of the Chinese Communist Party, how can they be trusted to call them out the next time they’re trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic?”

Besides South Africa, the newly identified Omicron has been detected in Botswana, and Belgium.

The mutant is spreading rapidly in parts of South Africa, with scientists expressing the concern that its unusually high number of mutations could make it more transmissible and result in immune evasion.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said there was a “high to very high” risk the new variant will spread in Europe. On 26 November, the Belgian government said a person who had recently arrived from abroad without vaccination had tested positive for Omicron, marking the first case in Europe.

WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Sars-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts, met yesterday to discuss the variant, a WHO statement said. The advisers recommended WHO designate the variant as “of concern,” referencing the variant’s large number of mutations, the possibility of increased risk of reinfection and other evidence.

“Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron,” the WHO said.

A number of studies are underway, and the UN’s health wing will update member states and the public as needed, the WHO statement said.

The WHO called on countries to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand coronavirus variants. “Initially it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday, the indication came from our scientists from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant,” Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s Minister of Health, said the day before yesterday, emphasising that it was currently unclear where Omicron had first emerged.

South African officials initially said there was one confirmed case of Omicron in a traveller from South Africa to Hong Kong. Subsequently, health authorities on Friday identified a second case of the B.1.1.529 variant among returning travellers on the same floor of a designated quarantine hotel.

Director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation Tulio de Oliveira said the mutant had “many more mutations than we have expected”, adding it was “spreading very fast, and we expect to see pressure in the health system in the next few days and weeks”.

Viruses, including the Chinese-origin one that causes Covid-19, mutate regularly and most new mutations do not have a significant impact on the virus’s behaviour and the illness they cause.

Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health Dr Ashish Jha said that Omicron was “acting differently”. though, and it “looks like it’s much more contagious than even the variant.”

Acting on the cue from a compromised WHO, the US and several other countries have imposed new travel restrictions and markets in the US, Asia and Europe fell sharply following the news of its discovery.

Accepting the advice of US health officials, US President Joe Biden will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, administration officials said. This does not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents. As with all international travellers, they must still test negative prior to travel.

Virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School in the UK Lawrence Young said the Omicron variant was “very worrying”. “It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date. Omicron carries some changes we’ve seen previously in other variants but never all together in one virus. It also has novel mutations,” Young said.

The variant has a high number of mutations, about 50 overall. Crucially, South African genomic scientists said Thursday more than 30 of the mutations were found in the spike protein — the structure the virus uses to get into the cells they attack.

Director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London Neil Ferguson said in a statement the number of mutations on the spike protein was “unprecedented”. “The spike protein gene (is) the protein which is the target of most vaccines. There is, therefore, a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior than previous variants,” Ferguson said.

Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge Sharon Peacock said there had been a rapid increase in the past seven days while the overall number of Covid-19 cases is relatively low in South Africa. She said while 273 new infections were recorded on 16 November, the figure had risen to more than 1,200 cases by 25 November, with more than 80% coming from Gauteng province.

“The epidemiological picture suggests that this variant may be more transmissible, and several mutations are consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” Peacock said in a comment shared by the UK’s Science Media Centre. She said while the significance of the mutations and their combination was unknown, some of those present in Omicron had been associated in others with immune evasion.

Jha said scientists were concerned by the speed with which Omicron had taken off. “This one has become dominant very quickly in South Africa, in the regions where it’s been found, within a matter of days to weeks as opposed to months,” he said.

Peacock, de Oliveira, Ferguson, Jha and other scientists said it was too early to tell the full impact of the mutations on vaccine efficacy. De Oliveira stressed the Covid-19 shots are still the best tool against the virus, adding lab studies still need to be carried out to test vaccine and antibody evasion. “I don’t think we’re going to see a situation where the vaccines will be rendered useless,” said Jha. “I think that’s exceedingly unlikely. The question is, is there a tiny hit to vaccine efficacy, or is there a large hit? I think we’ll get some preliminary data probably in the next few days.”

More studies need to be conducted to understand the clinical severity of Omicron compared to previous mutants. It is unclear where the new mutation emerged from. While it was first identified in South Africa, it may have come from elsewhere.

“It is important not to assume that the variant first emerged in South Africa,” Peacock said.

Vaccine maker Moderna said Friday the combination of mutations seen in the new Omicron variant represents a “significant potential risk to accelerate the waning of natural and vaccine-induced immunity.”

The company said it was working rapidly to test the ability of its vaccine to neutralise the new variant and data was expected in the coming weeks.

AstraZeneca, another vaccine maker, said it was looking to understand the impact the Omicron variant has on its coronavirus vaccine and was testing its antibody combination therapy against the new variant.

The platform used in the vaccine enables the company to respond quickly to new variants, a spokesperson for the company said on 26 November. “AstraZeneca is already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini, that will enable us to collect real-world data of Vaxzevria against this new virus variant,” the spokesperson said.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is not currently authorized for use in the US. Johnson & Johnson said it was testing its vaccine against the new variant.

For the record, scientists have praised South African health authorities for their quick reaction to a Covid-19 outbreak in the country’s Gauteng province, which led to the discovery of the new variant.

When cases in the province started to rise at a higher rate than elsewhere, health experts focused on sequencing samples from those who tested positive, which allowed them to quickly identify the B.1.1.529 variant.

Peacock said the South African health ministry and its scientists “are to be applauded in their response, their science, and in sounding the alarm to the world.” She said the shows how important it is to have excellent sequencing capabilities and to share expertise with others.

The reaction to the announcement of the new variant discovered by South African health authorities was also prompt.

UK officials announced on 25 November that they would add six African countries to England’s travel “red list” after the UK Health Security Agency flagged concern over the variant.

UK’s Health Minister Sajid Javid said flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe would be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries would be added to the red list — meaning UK residents and British and Irish nationals arriving home from those points of departure must undergo a 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.

Speaking on earlier today, Javid said it was “highly likely” the B.1.1.529 variant has spread beyond southern Africa. In a statement to the UK House of Commons on Friday, Javid expressed concern it may “pose a substantial risk to public health.”

Members of the European Union have agreed to introduce temporary restrictions on all travel into the EU from southern Africa over the new Covid-19 variant, the bloc said Friday.

Member states agreed to “introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the EU from seven countries in the Southern Africa region: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe,” said EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer.

Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have also announced new restrictions on travellers coming from the region.

Canada will be “banning the entry of foreign nationals… that have travelled through southern Africa in the last 14 days,” due to the new coronavirus mutant, said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos at a press conference on Friday.

“Canadians and permanent residents and those with a right of entry into Canada will be tested on arrival, [and] they will quarantine until they get the result of a negative test,” according to Duclos.

South Africa, like much of the region, has suffered through three significant Covid-19 waves since the pandemic’s start. While the number of new infections across the country is now still relatively low and positivity levels are under 5%, public health officials have already predicted the fourth wave because of slow vaccine uptake.

South Africa has fully vaccinated 35.37% of its adult population and has seen its rate of people initiating vaccination fall in recent days, according to data from the country’s Department of Health.

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