Health and Medicine

The Omicron variant might be our last warning about vaccinating Africa

By Ryan Cooper  The Week

Over Thanksgiving weekend, global markets were convulsed by news of a new coronavirus variant, dubbed “Omicron” by the World Health Organization after discovery by South African scientists. It raised the prospect of yet another major surge of cases and deaths all around the world.

Though that initial panic may be overblown, Omicron is still extremely concerning — and an object lesson in the crazy risk of letting so much of Africa remain unvaccinated against COVID-19. I and many others have been warning variants would arise there, and now one has. Without rapid mass vaccination, this won’t be the last time it happens.

We don’t yet know much about Omicron. As virologist Boghuma Kabisen Titanji explains at The Atlantic, it’s a variant with a large number of mutations that are associated with increased infectivity and ability to evade the immune system. It’s possible that means the vaccines will be less effective, though it’s vanishingly unlikely vaccination will provide no protection at all. Booster shots will almost certainly still be useful in limiting Omicron’s spread, and a future booster could be aimed specifically at this variant.

Meanwhile, as Cambridge microbiologist Ravi Gupta has said, the genetic profile of these mutations suggest it came from a prolonged, chronic infection of a single person with a compromised immune system. It’s exactly the kind of result we’d expect from the virus battering a weak (but not too weak) immune system for months on end, giving the virus selective pressure to learn lots of new tricks.

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