Human vulnerability to the fore in the wake of Omicron
December 05 2021 11:39 PM

Even as the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic, which is about to begin its third year of disrupting life, all hopes of a return to normal have been demolished by Omicron, the latest variant of concern. The heavily mutated variant reported in South Africa on November 24, 2021, is three times more likely to cause reinfections compared to the Delta or Beta strains, scientists say. The virus has come a long way after having surfaced in the Chinese City of Wuhan in December 2019, wreaking havoc on all sectors across the globe and irreversibly changing life as we know in living memory.
The Omicron coronavirus variant is triggering a fresh patchwork of national travel restrictions around the world, throwing up new obstacles to overseas travel just as it was starting to bounce back from last year’s Covid-19 measures. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness and how effective current treatments and vaccines are against it. In the US, two cases involved residents with no recent international travel history — showing that Omicron is already circulating inside the country. “This is a case of community spread,” the Hawaii Health Department confirmed. 
The Biden administration’s new, stricter Covid-19 testing requirements for all travellers coming to the US will take effect today (Monday). All inbound international travellers will be required to test negative one day before their departure for the US, a rather stringent demand, given the usual window between testing and getting the result. The US strategy is aimed at fighting a potential winter surge of Covid-19 without enacting unpopular lockdowns. Japan and Israel are now barring almost all foreign visitors. Countries across Europe and Asia have instituted new rules for international travellers — including additional testing and quarantine requirements.
Germany last Thursday announced a nationwide lockdown for the unvaccinated, as its leaders backed plans for mandatory vaccinations in the coming months. Unvaccinated people will be banned from accessing all but the most essential businesses, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, to curb the spread of Covid-19. Those who have recently recovered from Covid-19 are not covered by the ban. The announcement comes as Germany battles a surge in cases that has pushed Europe back to the epicentre of the pandemic, heightening fears over the Omicron variant.
Back in South Africa, the new variant is spreading faster in Gauteng, the epicentre of the latest outbreak in the country, than the delta strain or any of the earlier mutations. While previous infections and vaccinations may prevent serious illness, authorities have noticed higher level of “reinfections,” which means “susceptibility of the population is greater,” Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, told a WHO briefing last Thursday. A quarter of South Africa’s 60mn people live in Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.
In South Africa, only 24% of people are fully vaccinated. The researchers said their findings could have “important implications” for similar countries where there are high levels of natural immunity from infection. It is still too soon to know for sure as it takes a couple of weeks from catching the virus to needing hospital care. South Africa is also a relatively young country, which means Covid will appear milder than it would if it spread in a more elderly population.

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