omicron

Origin: Unknown

Crime record: Unknown

Armed or unarmed: Unknown

Capabilities: Unknown

Motive: Unknown

Category: Extremely dangerous!

If that were a profile of a criminal suspect, the cop writing it would have been laughed out of his job long ago for coming to such a drastic conclusion based on zero evidence. That however is not a  police report, but the current status update of Omicron, the latest variant of SARS-COV2 virus hogging headlines around the globe.

‘Super transmissible’, ‘A tsunami of infections ahead’, ‘Vaccines ineffective’, ‘75000 more people will die in the UK alone this winter’, ……These are some of the headlines on the theme the media is awash with – all based on statements or comments made by international bodies, epidemiologists, health professionals and the journalist’s spouse’s grand uncle.

And yet if you visit the websites of the World Health Organization or the US Centers for Disease Control the picture that emerges of Omicron is far, far more tentative. In fact, the available information on all aspects of the new variant is so nebulous that it is impossible to make any meaningful statements about its future course, leave alone adopt any clear policies to safeguard public health.

Yes, with multiple mutations on the virus’ signature spike protein, the new variant has a growth advantage and seems to be much more transmissible than earlier variants. This means there could be more ‘breakthrough’ infections too, with even fully vaccinated folks getting infected.

Not surprising at all, given that most current vaccines were developed based on the spike protein structure of the Covid virus from early 2020. Indeed as per the latest reports eighty-one percent of the 54 patients detected with the Omicron virus in Maharashtra were fully vaccinated. A few had even taken a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine.

But the real question on everyone’s mind is whether Omicron causes severe infection, prolonged hospital stays and more deaths?

“It’s early to tell, but we do have some initial reports that it is less severe” said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, a senior infectious disease epidemiologist with the WHO in a recent interview.

And according to the US CDC: “More data are needed to know if Omicron infections, and especially reinfections and breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated, cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants.”

In other words what we know so far is that Omicron spreads faster than Delta but also seems to be less dangerous, something corroborated by the mild symptoms experienced by most of those infected so far. On 14 December, the South African private health insurer Discovery Health in Johannesburg announced that hospitalization risk has been 29% lower among people infected with Omicron, compared with people infected with a previous variant.

Of course greater transmissibility, even with less virulence, can translate into large number of people getting infected. However,  larger numbers by itself does not mean much if their illness is mild, as has been found so far. And even if there are more breakthrough infections, Omicron is not expected to cause severe illness among the vaccinated, whose levels of immunity seem enough to provide required protection.

The impact will be high of course on the unvaccinated, especially those above 70 years of age and people with severe co-morbidities. However, these high risk categories are under threat not just from Omicron but every form of Covid that has visited our planet in the last two years.

And there are further two categories of folks among the unvaccinated – those who have deliberately chosen to not to take it for political or ideological reasons and those who want it but don’t have access. While the first lot are exercising their right to  decide what they do with their own bodies the latter are being denied their right to healthcare and perhaps the right to life itself.

The reasons for such denial of access to vaccines in turn is part of the stark inequities that have been around at the global level for very long. The worst victim of this legacy of both colonialism of the past and its re-branded modern avatars has been of course Africa, which is where the Omicron variant first came to light.

As per the most recently available data Africa has fully vaccinated just 6% of its population while  most high-income countries have already vaccinated more than 40% of their people. Since the start of the pandemic nearly 8.5 million COVID-19 cases and more than 217 000 deaths have been recorded in Africa. In low-income countries in general only 8.1% of people have received at least one dose compared to 57% at the global level.

Whether there is a direct link between the lack of access to vaccines and emergence of new variants of the Covid virus is not entirely clear. What can be said with some certainty is that as long as a significant population of the planet is not vaccinated the virus will keep circulating, mutating and keep prolonging the pandemic.

In April 2020, the WHO and UNICEF along  with  various partners set up the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX) to ensure equitable access to newly developed vaccines against the virus, with the slogan ‘nobody wins the race until everyone wins’.

The program, which has participation from 180 countries, pools funds from wealthier countries that are used not only to buy vaccines for those countries but also to ensure low- and middle-income countries have access. However, right from the start richer countries have cornered much of the world’s vaccine supply through direct deals with vaccine makers as also through the COVAX facility. Many of them have ended up with far more vaccine doses than needed for their own populations.

As a result of this and other factors COVAX managed to supply only 792 million doses by late December 2021, which is less than half the target it had set for  providing  access to  health care workers and those most-at-risk (particularly in poorer countries) to 2 billion doses of vaccines by the end of 2021.

What all this really shows is that the biggest threat to lives and well-being worldwide comes, not just from a rapidly mutating, capricious virus but even more so from the atrocious selfishness of global elites. The panic and anxiety over Omicron – driven as usual by a vacuous media-  serves only to hide the harsh reality of global inequity- the grimmest reaper of them all.

Satya Sagar is a public health worker and journalist who can be reached at sagarnama@gmail.com


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