Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 466, 23 December 2021

COVID-19: Omicron rapidly spreads across countries
Akriti Sharma

In the news
On 22 December, the UK reported 1,06,122 cases recording the highest number of daily cases reported. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Omicron has spread to 106 countries.

On 22 December, according to the New York Times, a South African study highlighted that risk of hospitalization was 70 per cent lesser among people infected with Omicron as compared to other variants. 

On 22 December, according to CNBC, a Scottish study suggested that the Omicron is two-thirds less likely to result in hospitalization in comparison to the Delta. Additionally, a study from England shows that omicron infection was 15 to 20 per cent less likely to lead to hospitalization than Delta.

On 20 December, the WHO said that Omicron cases doubled in one to one-and-a-half days, making it more transmissible than the Delta variant of COVID-19. It added that Omicron is also infecting vaccinated and recovered from COVID-19. According to Reuters, the WHO chief scientist said: "We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago."

On 6 December, US Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci said: "Thus far, it does not look like there's a great degree of severity to it [Omicron]." 
 
Issues at large
First, the South African case. On 23 November, the first case of the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant was detected in South Africa. On 26 November, the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) classified Omicron as a "variant of concern." Since then, South Africa has been at the forefront of dealing with Omicron. On 16 December, the country reported 27,000 cases of Omicron. On 21 December, it reported 15,424 cases. The reduction in the cases suggests that the flattening of Omicron surge. This hints at a short-lived wave as compared to the delta variant. According to a study conducted by South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Omicron is causing fewer hospitalizations and is less severe as compared to previous variants.

Second, the vaccine inequality. The developed and developing countries have been successful in vaccinating their population. Due to the lack of vaccines, the least developed countries have become breeding grounds for COVID-19 mutations. The South African origin of Omicron reflects the ineffective side of the global system attempting at vaccination. Unless the less developed countries are fully vaccinated, the new variants will find their way to the developed countries sooner or later.

Third, the uncertainty over the new variant. According to the three studies conducted in South Africa, Scotland and England, the variant is less severe and less hospitalized. However, this can be due to vaccination and recovery from COVID-19, which immunizes the population in the countries. Some scientists suggest that there can be high hospitalization as the variant is more transmissible. There is a lot of uncertainty revolving around the variant.

Fourth, the urgent need for boosters. The surge in the Omicron cases has pushed the case for booster shots. Boosters can help increase the antibodies in the body, which can prevent hospitalization and a severe wave due to new variants. Moderna and Pfizer have announced that their mRNA boosters can provide increased immunity against Omicron. 

In perspective
First, the need for enhanced surveillance. Even though some studies have found the variant less severe and mild, there is a need for better surveillance and genome sequencing to understand the new variant better. The international community and the countries need to perform more studies and laboratory assessments, employ effective public health measures and diagnostic methods to predict the behaviour of the variant.

Second, significant concerns for the unvaccinated. The countries that have not achieved 100 per cent vaccination are at a higher risk of infection and a possible new wave. Countries need to fully vaccinate their population and provide booster shots for better prevention. 

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