COVID-19: OMICRON, AN INTRODUCTION, OR WHY WE NEED GLOBAL VACCINE DISTRIBUTION EQUITY
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
I don't always write on these topics too early, but if I have learned anything during this pandemic, it is that it's important to get out in front of disinformation before it spreads.
You've probably heard talk of a new variant of concern. B.1.1.529 has emerged (identified in the last 2 weeks) and is doing numbers in South Africa, where it was sequenced and identified. It has several concerning mutations, not all of whose function we are sure. It has been named Omicron.
DO NOT PANIC YET
Yes, this is a new variant of concern, but we do not know very much about it. Omicron was first detected and cases of it have risen sharply in the last 2 weeks, making it concerning for becoming the dominant strain like Delta did. HOWEVER, people (and media outlets) are already trying to say it's X times worse than Delta and make other claims...we do not have enough information to say ANY of that. There are a few graphs out there that do look alarming as the Omicron spike suddenly rises and seeming to overtake Delta. But context is key.
South Africa has had pretty low case loads, so even a small spike would look large (higher proportion). They also do NOT have a high vaccination rate, let alone much in terms of boosters - only about 23% fully vaccinated.
Let's look at other variants: Beta and Lambda appeared to have mutations that might escape or resist vaccine immunity, but they did not become dominant variants. Alpha and Delta, on the other hand, are well-covered by vaccine-mediated immunity, but spread devastation with high contagion (*gestures at world right now*). The mutations and actual impact do not always go hand-in-hand. That said…
THIS IS WHY WE NEED VACCINES. GLOBALLY.
If anyone tries to tell you that this is proof that vaccines do not work, they are incorrect. I repeat, they are lying through their teeth. As I said, we do not know enough about this variant yet. It was clear to scientists who identified this early that it must be taken seriously. We do need to monitor this closely so if it does turn out to be more dangerous, we stay on top of it (you know, like we did not do with Delta).
If we had greater global availability and distribution of vaccines, we may have been able to avoid this problem. Don't get me wrong, we do not have enough vaccine uptake in this country, but we have plenty of availability for most Americans (leaving aside capitalistic issues that do not always allow time off to get the vaccine and deal with the reactogenic effects). We (the USA and other rich nations) should have worked much sooner to get better vaccine distribution infrastructure to places that lacked it.
This is not the "South African" variant or the "Botswana" variant. Just because it was identified in a country first does not mean it was brought about by it (these spikes, small though they are, in the African countries are due to the availability of hosts because of poor vaccine distribution). The 1918 influenza pandemic, known as the "Spanish Flu" was actually first identified in Kansas. It was called the Spanish flu because news media in Spain were the first to be allowed to report it (the news in WWI combatant countries was censored to avoid bad news and maintain morale).
South Africa invested in advanced genomic sequencing, the technology that allowed the identification and analysis of this variant. You know which country does not do enough (especially proportionally) to identify variants, does not invest enough in testing and tracing? That's right. We in the US don't (variant does not impact treatment, but it would be helpful for epidemiological purposes). So in response to another country graciously sharing its information to aid us in keeping of track of a variant of concern, to help us in case it does become dangerous, we shut them out.
We instituted travel bans that we already know do not work (especially when people here do not want to take measures to stop spread anymore). This variant has been identified in South Africa and Botswana (hence a ban on 7 African countries), but it has also been seen in Belgium, Hong Kong, and Israel (again, small amounts of cases, but that just shows how much it has spread already, likely beyond any travel ban). I criticized Donald Trump for doing this and now Joe Biden is doing the same thing. As Dr. Oni Blackstock puts it, we "Hoard vaccine, manufacture vaccine inequity, create conditions for emergence of variants, then ban and isolate."
GOING FORWARD AND PAYING IT FORWARD
There will be much more information coming in the next few weeks about Omicron and its impact. My favorite science communicators will stay on top of that, and I will, too. In the meantime, we need to strengthen our global vaccination efforts. American booster doses are a great thing, but this is a global pandemic and it needs to be global protection.
If you have not done so yet, get your vaccine. This pandemic is not over and it is persisting because not enough people are vaccinated. This is even more important now as we get ready to gather for the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus/other December holidays.
In addition, take additional measures like masking and distancing when around crowds (especially indoors) or people whose vaccination status you don’t know.
If you choose not to get your vaccine and you are no longer allowed in restaurants and other public spaces, that is not discrimination or segregation no matter how much you want it to be. Protect your family and community one way or the other - get vaccinated or stay home.
If you can spare the money, donate to Gavi, an organization working to distribute vaccines all over the world to people who cannot access them. I'll post a link in the comments. I even did a TikTok about them.
As always, I welcome your questions.
Director of CERI South Africa: https://twitter.com/tuliodna/status/1463911554538160130?s=21
Donate to Gavi and watch me tie a bow tie while playing drums: https://vm.tiktok.com/TTPd24NFnY/