The origins of Omicron

Photo by Presswire18

Sam Feierabend

‘15 million jabs to freedom’ was the mantra of the government earlier this year as the country increasingly hoped that COVID-19 would be relegated to the past. Science had prevailed to protect the human race and it seemed that the rollercoaster ride, with all its twists, turns and loop-the-loops, was coming to an end. It certainly felt like freedom on 17th July, and a massive sigh of relief, when all legal coronavirus restrictions in the UK were officially lifted, meaning that people could go to nightclubs, attend sporting fixtures and holiday as they wished.

Fast forward to December, and 131 million jabs later, there is a new, more transmissible variant of COVID-19. One that is so easily transmitted, that countries in Europe are locking down once again. From Boxing Day, there have been tighter restrictions imposed in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The variant has been dubbed ‘Omicron’, the fifteenth letter in the Greek alphabet, descending from the word ‘micron’ of course meaning small in size. While the case numbers of Omicron are sky-high, is the effect of it – as its name suggests – small and insignificant? Data so far is unclear, but what is becoming evident is a ham-fisted approach in the Western vaccination programme that has allowed this variant to come about, ironically and subsequently causing all the lockdowns.

A key reason that the virus has been allowed to mutate is the devastating polarisation in vaccine wealth. When the race for a vaccine was won in late 2020, the economic powers of the West rushed to buy up stock of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines in an attempt to immunise their populations, defeat the virus and reopen their economies. A tantalising prospect for most no doubt, but it is easy to forget through capitalist-tinted glasses that there are people in the world less fortunate than ourselves. Those in countries who are poverty-stricken, without access to clean water or regular, quality healthcare. You know, the places where if a highly-problematic virus were to break out, it would run riot.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) committed to a scheme called COVAX, a vaccine delivery scheme that would grant poorer countries access to a stock of jabs to vaccinate the most vulnerable in their population. The promise aimed to see 100 million vaccines delivered by the end of March 2021, but it was not met until July. The 200 millionth vaccine was successfully delivered from the scheme in August. Fantastic. Except for the fact that the original figure was meant to be 600 million, and they couldn’t access this stock because some decided to bulk buy more stock than was initially required for vaccinations.

And so, the scene is set. In populations that are more hospitable for disease to spread, it spreads unopposed and, crucially, starts to mutate. On 24th November, the South African Government alerted the WHO to a potential new strain of coronavirus which coincided with soaring case rates and slightly different symptoms to that seen with the delta variant. Not enough was known about the variant to say if it could evade existing vaccines, but it has since become clear that it was in fact circulating across the globe long before it was picked up in South Africa.

Scientists in the country initially pointed towards their sub-Saharan neighbours, such as Tanzania and Botswana, who, in their eyes, had not handled the pandemic particularly well. Indeed, these are countries that have struggled to vaccinate their population, and would have benefitted from some form of international delivery scheme to build a barrier of immunity against the initial virus. Maybe one will be thought up of…

The UK Government’s response to this new variant was, like they did with the discovery of the delta variant in India, to block all travel to and from South Africa: a very rash and insensitive yet entirely predictable measure to take. Alas, it had only been discovered in South Africa, not proven to have come from there. The bandwagon of right-wing UK media dubbed it the ’South African variant’, whipping those into a frenzy who felt the need to criticise a nation for no apparent reason. No – it wasn’t from South Africa, and early data suggests that an undetected transmission from livestock to human may have been the cause of the mutation. It became certain that the variant was more transmissible than any strain of COVID-19 seen before. Those labelling the virus as ‘South African’ were fairly quickly put into their place when evidence of cases of Omicron in Europe had been circulating as soon as the start of November.

This provides perhaps an unexpected ‘micron’ of hope. Any virus that mutates to become more transmissible will be less lethal. Early evidence from the amazing work of scientists in South Africa seems to suggest this is the case for Omicron.

The West responded however by speaking of lockdown, with the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Switzerland alike imposing tougher restrictions on their population. The UK have pushed ahead with their booster vaccination scheme, presenting evidence that a third vaccine shot will provide enough protection against the new variant to stop serious illness and hospitalisation. This has been echoed across Europe and America as well, as yet again, more vaccines are being whisked away from the less fortunate to keep economies that they deem more important ticking over. They will never learn.

Need proof? 9 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered globally. Only 8.3% of people in low-income countries, however, have received a dose. To put this in perspective, over 87% of adults in the UK are fully vaccinated; in Nigeria, often seen as one of the most prosperous economies in Africa, only 4% have received the vaccine at all.

So where do we go from here? From a UK perspective, the devolved powers of the union have already split, with Boris Johnson defiantly holding out for more data, or more deaths to justify locking England down. Staggeringly, the data in its infancy might be working in his favour, especially given South Africa’s case rate plummeting despite not imposing any social restrictions.

On a global perspective, viruses will constantly mutate, and it is all well and good by vaccinating your own population and washing our hands of responsibility, but more collective effort needs to be made to now protect those who need it most. By building a stronger wall of immunity, it is less likely that a serious mutation will occur, and then push the need for an extra booster vaccine, and then make less stock available, and then see less given to low-income countries, and then mutate again – you see where I’m going here.

For what it’s worth, listening to scientific advise as more data becomes available is the best approach. Help us all if the government re-take the reins – we might have to buckle up for the rollercoaster ride again.