While health experts scramble to understand the implications of Omicron, and countries around the world impose hasty travel restrictions, the emergence of the new variant could hardly have come at a worse time for South Africa’s vaccination campaign amid a worrisome fourth wave of COVID-19.
The South African government had set a goal of fully immunising 70 percent of adults by the end of the year, but has so far managed to get both jabs in the arms of only 36 percent – just over 16 million people. It has acknowledged it will miss its long-promised target.
In a national televised address on 28 November, days after news of Omicron broke, President Cyril Ramaphosa warned that the government was considering imposing vaccine mandates to re-energise its campaign. Otherwise, he said, “we will continue to be vulnerable to new variants and will continue to suffer new waves of infection”.
The emergence of new strains is a significant concern in South Africa, where around 90,000 people have died from COVID-19, and where growing evidence points to the country’s high HIV-prevalence rate as amplifying the risk of coronavirus mutations.
COVID-infected, immuno-compromised patients can struggle to clear the virus from their bodies and over time can become “factories for variants”, noted University of KwaZulu-Natal geneticist, professor Tulio de Oliveira, part of the team of scientists that identified Omicron.
Declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 26 November, Omicron has so far appeared in some 20 countries. Scientists are racing to understand the threat posed by the heavily mutated coronavirus – whether it’s more transmissible, virulent, and better able to dodge current vaccines than previous strains.