Omicron, the newly discovered coronavirus variant, which is fast-spreading globally, is poised to diminish economic gains the world has recorded in recovery from the pandemic strains.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has described Omicron as “a variant of concern” due to its multiple mutations that have kept every country on high alert. The variant was first discovered on November 24 in South Africa, and has been found in more than 15 other countries including the UK, Netherlands, Hong Kong and Canada.
The variant symptom is said to be mild and very different from Delta, the last strain that rattled the world. But the WHO said on Monday that the Omicron is likely to spread internationally, posing a very high global risk of infection surges that could have severe consequences in some areas.
The UN agency thus urged its 194 member states to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and, in anticipation of increased case numbers, to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” to maintain essential health services.
“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said. “The overall global risk related to the new variant … is assessed as very high.”
This warning has fueled the newest precautionary safety measures that many countries are taking, which includes restricting travels from other countries. South Africa has been mostly targeted, with countries like the U.S. and UK swiftly initiating travel restrictions for Southern Africa, and the other regions where Omicron has been found. Israel and Japan have totally locked down their borders to foreigners.
The WHO said though no deaths have been linked to the variant yet, and research is ongoing to assess its potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, it poses a great challenge.
“Increasing cases, regardless of a change in severity, may pose overwhelming demands on healthcare systems and may lead to increased morbidity and mortality. The impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage,” it said.
While the travel restrictions are aimed at deescalating the spread of Omicron, if prolonged, they will likely take the global economy back to the plummeted stage at the peak of the pandemic when the world was on lockdown. The most affected areas of the economy being the travel and hospitality industries – not that other sectors got a soft landing.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had last year warned that the pandemic would cost a total of $28 trillion in lost output. But as economies witness paced reopening from early 2021, due to vaccine roll out, the cost seems to be reducing. The global supply chain which was severely impacted by the restrictions was reestablished, allowing free-flow of goods and services across borders.
Much of the gain will be eclipsed if the travel restrictions are reinstated as a trend in a bid to stop Omicron from spreading. The swift moves by many countries to lock their borders highlight their readiness to protect their economies from further ruin, but they also underscore the need for equitable vaccine distribution.
The WHO’s director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom says “vaccine equity is not charity but is in every country’s best interest as we look to fight the coronavirus pandemic.”
Presently, Omicron variant scare is being compounded by lack of adequate information as research is still ongoing.
“The presence of multiple mutations of the spike protein in the receptor-binding domain suggests that Omicron may have a high likelihood of immune escape from antibody-mediated protection. However, immune escape potential from cell-mediated immunity is more difficult to predict,” the WHO said, adding that Covid-19 cases and infections are expected in vaccinated persons, albeit in a small and predictable proportion.
The UN health arm, in its latest guidance, reiterated that countries should use a “risk-based approach to adjust international travel measures in a timely manner”. It is an advice that many leaders have supported.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called the hasty travel bans “discriminatory,” adding that he is “deeply disappointed” by the decisions.
“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from the pandemic,” he said.