Comment: Omicron met quickly with transparency and caution

Countries reacted quickly. The best advice now is to keep calm and continue vaccination efforts.

By Therese Raphael / Bloomberg Opinion

At least we’re learning. Remember when the early reaction to the outbreak of a deadly virus in Wuhan was to discourage people from changing their travel plans?

South Africa’s government didn’t sit on information about a new worrying variant of SARS-CoV-2, which the World Health Organization has now dubbed omicron. It didn’t downplay it. On the contrary, authorities shared detailed slides so that countries could develop their responses.

Now it’s up to governments and local authorities to adapt to a fast-changing viral picture; one that remains blurry in places.

Genomic sequencing of infections in South Africa found that the variant B.1.1.529 contained many more mutations than the dominant delta variant. More worrying, some of the mutations occur in the area of the spike protein that is targeted by antibodies. That could mean existing vaccines will be less effective, something we should know with more certainty in the coming weeks.

On Friday evening, the WHO dubbed the variant omicron (not “nu,” which seemed to be the Twitter consensus; and, in some conversations, a previous mutation designated “mu”). It’s also been called a “variant of concern,” which signifies it contains genetic changes that are known to affect transmissibility, disease severity or evade vaccines and therapies.

Certainly, omicron’s transmissibility seems extremely high. The WHO was alerted on Nov. 24 and says the variant was identified from a specimen collected on Nov. 9. It is already in evidence in most of South Africa’s provinces, along with Botswana, and cases have been found in Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. On Saturday, the United Kingdom government said two cases of omicron have been found in Britain. It’s quite likely it has spread elsewhere, too.

While South African officials are unhappy with it, travel restrictions are the obvious first response. The U.K. government announced a temporary travel ban on several countries Thursday night. However, when a flight from Gauteng — the South African province that includes Johannesburg — arrived in London Friday, some 300 passengers were released into the wild with only an advisory message to self-isolate and take some tests. (For a government that has done a lot of complaining about lax French border controls, that counts as an “own goal.”)

Meanwhile, Israel put in new travel restrictions, quarantines and PCR testing at the border. The EU recommended an “emergency brake” on travel from South Africa. These restrictions merely buy a little time to map out the next steps. If scientists confirm that omicron can indeed escape the defenses of current vaccines, then the race is on to develop a better defensive weapon.

Pfizer Inc. says it can deliver a vaccine that would counter the new variant within 100 days of sequencing. That’s fast. Regulators like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are likely to speed approval processes for vaccines that are just tweaked for new variants. Pfizer estimates it could make 4 billion doses in the first 12 months. Another 8 billion doses of the Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc vaccines are likely to be available in a similar time frame.

Even so, testing will need to be done on the updated vaccine. Getting it into enough arms will take many months, even with delivery systems primed by the current vaccine roll-out.

Other lines of defense will be important, too. There are questions about whether the new variant may change the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody treatments, proteins that attach to a specific target in the spike protein of the virus and can be a key tool in treating early infection and even as a prophylaxis in those vulnerable to serious illness.

Maybe we’ll get lucky. The authors of a study published in the journal Nature in September found the presence of “abundant” neutralizing antibody targets on the spike protein of the SARS-Co-V-2 virus; it apparently takes a lot of mutations to escape vaccines or natural infection. Then again, omicron has around 50 mutations and more than 30 in the spike protein, far more than the delta variant. Ten of the mutations are in the so-called receptor binding domain (RBD), which is the part of the virus that makes contact with cells first; that’s compared to two with delta.

Omicron was a statistical probability long before it actually turned up. With a 24 percent vaccination rate, it’s hardly a surprise it first appeared in South Africa. The Hong Kong case was in a vaccinated traveler; the Belgian in an unvaccinated one. The longer it takes to vaccinate whole populations, the faster we’ll cycle through the Greek alphabet with new variants; the only way to prevent that is to vaccinate more people faster.

Wherever omicron is seeded, it’s likely we’ll need the now familiar range of detection and mitigation measures; mask mandates in public places, more frequent testing and work-from-home guidance. While these measures are already back in place in much of Europe, it would be an unwelcome regression for the U.K., where mask-wearing is progressively rarer.

South Africa’s transparency and the early response suggests we’re at least learning the first lesson of pandemic management: that “wait and see” is a losing strategy.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, violent insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump scale the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Two Seattle police officers who were in Washington, D.C., during the January 6 insurrection were illegally trespassing on Capitol grounds while rioters stormed the building, but lied about their actions, a police watchdog said in a report released Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
Editorial: Electoral Count Act needs bipartisan reforms now

Changes to the 135-year-old law may prevent future attempts to overturn elections.

Editorial cartoons for Wednesday, Aug. 17

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

The COVID-19 ward at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett in May 2020. (Andy Bronson / Herald file) 20200519
Editorial: Nurses and hospitals need our care, support now

The pandemic has taken a toll on Providence and its nurses. Changes are needed to restore all.

Melinda Parke sits inside her Days Inn motel room as her son, Elijah, sleeps on his chair behind her Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Purchase of hotel as shelter can be effective tool

The county’s investment of federal aid will serve those who need shelter and supportive services.

Teresa Reynolds sits exhausted as members of her community clean the debris from their flood ravaged homes at Ogden Hollar in Hindman, Ky., Saturday, July 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Editorial: How many billion-dollar disasters will it take?

A tally of climate disasters shows an ever-increasing toll of costs and lives. Congress must act.

Glad to see inclusive report on Navy ships return to port

When I picked up my Daily Herald from my porch this morning,… Continue reading

Democrats aren’t you tired of all this?

Someone once told me that hitting yourself on the head with a… Continue reading

Let’s join essay writer in not tolerating bad behavior

Kudos to Tyler Rourke for his eloquent description of a recent family… Continue reading

Brittney Griner broke law and admitted guilt

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In other words, play… Continue reading

Most Read