DESPITE a palpable sense of the world going back to ‘normal’, the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant has begun to threaten global health and economies once again. Dubbed the Omicron variant, the new mutation of the virus was first detected in South Africa and is said to have an “unprecedented number of spike mutations”.
The WHO has said that the overall global risk from Omicron is very high, and that further data in the coming weeks will reveal this strain’s ability to evade protection against it. Cases of the new variant have been confirmed in EU countries and the UK, causing others to raise their guard. Japan has banned the entry of all foreigners and the British prime minister has called an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers.
Given what too many countries already know about the devastating consequences of an outbreak, quick action and preventive measures are key. In Pakistan, travel was banned from six African countries as well as Hong Kong soon after reports of Omicron’s potentially easier transmissibility became global news. NCOC chair Asad Umar at a press conference yesterday said that the spread of Omicron is inevitable, but that measures such as booster vaccines and contact tracing would be taken to reduce its threat in Pakistan. He has also acknowledged that the virus may come to Pakistan as global travel largely continues as normal.
However, aside from greater vaccine coverage and contact tracing, the government’s messaging around coronavirus and the potential threat of Omicron must be reactivated. Mask-wearing must be encouraged, and testing, too, should be ramped up. The government must battle vaccine hesitancy and spread awareness that though there are fears about the Omicron variant infecting vaccinated people, it is still unclear to what extent the virus can resist protection.
Reports from South Africa indicate that the people who are going to hospital are unvaccinated. We also know for certain that though those who are double-jabbed can get infected with the Delta variant, the chances of this happening are about three times lower than if they hadn’t been vaccinated. Fully vaccinated individuals are approximately nine times less likely to die if they do contract the virus.
Pakistan still does not have competitive technology for genome sequencing and variant detection that other countries have, so as scientists work to determine how lethal Omicron is, the authorities must do everything they can to stop its spread. Testing and isolation practices which the federal government had taken at the beginning of the pandemic may be reintroduced in the case of travellers from countries where Omicron is spreading. Messaging around indoor gatherings, too, should be clear. Both the federal and provincial governments’ effective measures in the earlier waves can be reintroduced if there is even a slight increase in the national positivity rate. At no cost should the threat from Covid-19 be taken lightly.
Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2021