Omicron: The Newest Concerning COVID-19 Variant, Global Panic, Need For Global Vaccine Equity

On November 24th, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) received the first report of the B.1.1.529 variant of the coronavirus, also known as the Omicron variant. The WHO has declared this a variant of concern, and experts worry that there is an increased risk of reinfection and the possibility of the variant being resistant to the current vaccines. Global responses to this variant have included many countries increasing travel restrictions from South Africa and other countries that have reported cases, as well as a panic that has led to a drop in global stocks. The WHO is advising against travel bans, and is encouraging countries to remain careful, but not to panic or take “hasty measures.” This variant was first identified in a case from South Africa that was tested on November 9th, 2021: as of November 28th, cases have been identified in several other countries, including Botswana, Israel, Hong Kong, India, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other European countries.

The WHO has told countries not to panic in response to this new variant and has recommended that individuals continue to follow public health measures. Additionally, WHO has recommended that countries increase their surveillance of COVID-19, report cases of the new variant, and share data on this variant to help experts learn more about it. Omicron has more mutations than any prior variant and it is expected to be at least two weeks before it will be known if the current vaccines are effective against the variant.

For the most part, the Omicron strain has shown countries reacting by doing what they believe is right in a difficult situation. At the same time, the response shows clear global panic. As recommended by WHO, it is important to respond rationally and to focus on the facts that are known about this strain, rather than only focusing on the unknown possible negative impacts it may have. Almost two years into the global coronavirus pandemic, this new variant comes as a new source of fear for individuals and governments around the world. The concern that the vaccines may not be effective against this variant brings an extra source of worry and frustration: for many, the vaccines have been a source of hope that the end of the pandemic may be in sight. It is important to remember in this situation that currently there is no evidence of if the vaccines are or are not effective against this strain, and that it is better to remain calm than to panic.

The emergence of this new variant of concern speaks to the ongoing need to increase the rates of vaccination globally. As noted in a piece by The Guardian, “Omicron is a reminder that no one is safe until everyone is safe.” Low-income countries need to be receiving vaccines more efficiently and faster than they have been. Almost enough vaccines have been made for the entire world to be vaccinated against COVID-19, however, only 3% of people living in low-income countries have been vaccinated, due to high-income countries hoarding vaccines. To stop the continued mutation of the virus, to assist global economic recovery, and to protect the world’s most vulnerable, there needs to be a global effort for global vaccine access. More information on the need for global vaccines, or to learn how individuals can contribute to this cause, can be found on the UNICEF website at https://www.unicef.org/immunization/vaccines-for-all as part of a global campaign to deliver vaccines to low-income countries.

What the Omicron variant means for the future is uncertain now. What can be said is that this strain makes it clear that this virus is still evolving, and that there will likely be future mutations beyond this. The global community needs to work together to fight the threats caused by COVID-19, and there is a need for those countries that can afford to help other countries to do so. As long as the inability to obtain vaccines remains a barrier to so many countries, there is little hope of global eradication of the virus. Omicron might be a source of worry and fear, but it also is an important reminder that “no one is safe until everyone is safe,” and that it is the responsibility of those who are safe to help those who are not.

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