On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) distinguished the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, or Omicron. Although South Africa was the first nation to report the Omicron variant to WHO on November 24, scientists are unsure of where and when it originated. According to The Washington Post, the variant has been detected all over the world, including in the United States, UK, EU, Israel, Hong Kong, and Botswana. As this list continues to grow, the emergence of the Omicron variant is provoking global fear and putting the nations of the world on edge.
WHO said that “there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those of other variants,” according to the Associated Press. A key concern that scientists seem to have with this new variant is that there may be an increased risk of reinfection for individuals who have previously had COVID. Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, explained that this variant is “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen,” the AP writes.
Many nations have imposed travel bans on certain countries of concern, mainly in parts of Southern Africa, according to Reuters. In a statement released by President Biden on the Omicron COVID-19 variant, he stated that he is “ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries,” effective November 29. President Biden urged Americans to get vaccinated, if not already, and if able to, receive the booster shot. Reassuring Americans, he says that the new variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” He also calls upon other nations to meet the standard the U.S. has regarding the donation of vaccines to other countries. Regardless of vaccination status, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is requiring tests for all overseas travelers boarding a flight to the United States, as the first reported case of the Omicron variant was reported in the United States, on November 29, reports the Associated Press.
South Africa has denounced the travel bans, as President Cyril Ramaphosa has stated, “The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant…The only thing [it] will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to … the pandemic.” According to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the reported cases rose from 4,373 on Tuesday, November 30, to 8,561 on Wednesday, December 1, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director, responded to actions global leaders have taken, stating, “the lack of a consistent and coherent global approach has resulted in a splintered and disjointed response, breeding misunderstanding, misinformation, and mistrust.” Though travel bans can decrease the spread of the variant, they are not reliable, long-term containment measures. Many nations have agreed that the only way to tackle this problem head-on is to provide Africa and other susceptible nations with COVID-19 vaccinations. According to the New York Times, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered one billion doses of the COVID vaccine to Africa, during an address to a conference in Senegal. Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, also reiterated that “the identification of the Omicron variant in the southern part of Africa confirms the urgency to do more to vaccinate the population of the most fragile countries.”
As nations rush to contain the COVID-19 Omicron variant, little is known about this new strain of mutation. The ‘act now, question later’ approach tothis problem is provoking global fears and tensions between barred nations. As Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has stated in a press conference, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”