Botswanan Scientists Discover Omicron COVID-19 Variant
Updated: Jan 2
Flights canceled. Restaurants closed. This holiday season, the omicron variant converging with the delta variant added a new set of challenges once again disrupting travel plans and overwhelming hospitals. Interestingly, while the omicron variant has been largely associated with South Africa, it was actually found in the Netherlands the week before. Belgium and Germany have also indicated that sample tests confirm the variant was in their countries before the announcement of its existence on November 24. Two days later, the WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern.
When Botswanan scientists discovered a new genetic sequence of the virus, they checked the databases and verified that it had not previously been seen in Africa. The omicron variant was detected from four international travelers who had flown in from Europe. The team, headed by Sikhulile Moyo, the laboratory director at the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership and a research associate with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported it to the World Health Organization. With 43 spike protein mutations as compared to 18 for the Delta variant, public officials were understandably alarmed. However, his country was subsequently put on the red list while European countries were not. In an interview with NPR, Moyo expressed his discouragement for the unfair treatment of his country. As a result of his team alerting the world of this potentially dangerous variant, Botswana and other South African countries were placed on travel bans. Within days, the highly transmissible omicron variant was detected worldwide. Domestically, criticism abounds in Botswana amidst the disruption in the supply chain and the economy especially right before the holidays. Much needed vaccines were also delayed. Moyo explained that only twenty percent of the population there have been vaccinated. If countries who are administering booster doses can help vaccinate the segment of the world that is still yet to be protected, we can all fight the virus together instead of leaving room for more variants to develop and circulate.
With omicron now prevalent in the US and in over 100 countries, President Biden is lifting the travel restrictions as of December 31 after determining that the current vaccine and booster shots are protective against the variant. Thankfully, the omicron wave seems to have peaked in South Africa with milder cases and fewer deaths, offering hope for other countries in the global community.