What You Need to Know About Omicron


Sarah "Bella" Roth, Contributor

The last thing Americans wanted during their Thanksgiving break was to have to learn another Greek letter. However, last week, South Africa and Botswana announced their first cases of what the World Health Organization (WHO) has named the Omicron variant, a new strain of COVID-19 that has now spread to over twenty countries. 

South African researchers have not concluded much about the new variant in terms of severity or transmissibility yet. It contains mutations that could possibly lead to higher transmission rates, but it is still too early to tell for sure. Early trends show an increase in cases and hospitalizations in South Africa, but it is unclear if this is a result of new Omicron-specific features or outside factors. The WHO also reports that while previous treatments and tests for COVID-19 are most likely still effective, there is a chance that the immunity gained from having different variants of COVID-19 in the past may be less effective in avoiding Omicron infection. 

As of November 29, cases of the Omicron variant have been reported on four continents. The first confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the United States was reported two days later in California, a development that Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week was “inevitable.”

Even though the American Center for Disease Control (CDC) has yet to take an official position on the new strain, the U.S. government has closed its borders to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The U.S. joins Australia, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, and the European Union in closing their borders to much of Southern Africa. 

Border closures have been met with a surge of protest in Southern African nations. Resentment in the area has grown as the West continues to monopolize vaccines, as just over 10 percent of people in Africa have received a preliminary dose of any vaccine. Southern Africans feel as if developed countries are now penalizing countries with low vaccination rates as new strains emerge, even though they have hoarded these vaccines in the first place. 

There is also worry that the swift closing of borders in the world’s wealthiest countries will discourage truthful reporting of Omicron cases. Daniel Diermeier, the Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, has stated that it is critical to avoid hasty actions such as these when managing this pandemic. Diermeier further advises that equally important in crisis management is transparency, which actions such as swift border closures put in the balance. Vanderbilt itself hasn’t made an official statement about the variant or its potential effects on campus life. 

As the world continues to learn more of the Greek alphabet for what will soon be a third year of the pandemic, a long-term solution is clearly needed. The WHO recommends addressing the inequity in global vaccine distribution; this would not only address the possible threat of the Omicron variant, but provide a possible large-scale solution to the spread of present and future strains, ultimately breaking the cycle of this pandemic. 

Photo Credit: “NMCP Reestablishes COVID-19 Testing Tents” by Ariana Torman