Last week, a doctor in South Africa identified a new variant of COVID-19, which has since been named the “Omicron” variant. This new strain has been suggested to be far more contagious than previous strains, spreading rapidly in South Africa. That said, the doctor responsible for its discovery, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, has said that the symptoms from this strain are “extremely mild” compared to the alpha and delta variants.
In response to this discovery, multiple governments — including the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and Israel — have imposed travel restrictions on the countries of Southern Africa. In response, the South African health minister called the new restrictions “knee-jerk” and “draconian,” saying that the Omicron variant was likely already present in these other countries. “I think you already have it there in your country without even knowing it so I would say at this stage, definitely. Two weeks on, maybe we will say something different,” she said. Multiple European countries have already found that Omicronians walk among them today, many of whom haven’t been to South Africa recently.
The threat to the world posed by the Omicron variant is “extremely high,” according to the World Health Organization. This judgment comes from the high rate of transmission and the fact that multiple cases have already been found all across the globe. This infectivity is primarily caused by a mutation, which varies within the strain itself. Over 30 different mutations have been found in the Omicron strain. A more indirect reason for the increased infectivity is the relatively low number of symptoms and significantly lower severity. Scientists are unaware of the reason for this. However, one theory suggests that it could have something to do with how many people in South Africa are immunized through vaccination and previous infection. If these two theories are found to be true, then vaccines may have ironically facilitated some of the rise in infection in regards to the Omicron variant.
As for the symptoms themselves, the research is somewhat split. The doctor responsible for its discovery stated that the virus had fewer nose and throat symptoms than the delta variant. Most patients reported a “scratchy” throat rather than “sore,” and very little loss of taste and smell was found at all. However, different mutations act differently, and some strains of the Omicron variants are shown to be more present in the nose and throat area. This isn’t mutually exclusive, a virus can sometimes be more present in an area and still have fewer symptoms, but the different mutations provide a more likely explanation. Unfortunately, every mutation also has multiple scientists and doctors with different opinions on what the mutations mean and how to address them, leading to an overload of information on a subject we know very little information about.
The responses to the Omicron variant have, understandably, differed by country and region of the world. Japan, for example, has had some of the harshest travel restrictions so far, banning all foreign nationals from entering the country. Australia has put its plans to reopen on hold for now as well. A similar situation has also taken place in New Zealand. The Netherlands has required a two-week quarantine from all those who have visited South Africa before allowing them to freely roam the country again. This has led to some backlash, as a couple was recently arrested by the Dutch police for sneaking out of their quarantine hotel before their time was up. In Australia, a woman was arrested for arson after attempting to burn down the hotel she was quarantined in. These cases beg the question of how long people are willing to deal with travel and life restrictions before they break.
Ultimately, we currently know very little about the Omicron variant. The only thing we can say for sure is that there is plenty of information available on the subject, not all of which is accurate. We must be sensible with our news consumption and reasonable with our news expectations. We won’t know everything about this variant for a long time, so anyone who claims to know everything likely just wants your clicks.