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Between Generalised (and Precipitated?) Concern and Caution of Researchers, Who Wins, Politics or Science?

Between Generalised (and Precipitated?) Concern and Caution of Researchers, Who Wins, Politics or Science?

It was identified in South Africa and was first named B.1.1.529, then named Omicron by the World Health Organization, which immediately classified it as a “variant of concern. Announced on November 24th, this new variant of covid-19 caused an unprecedented alarm among authorities of most countries in the world that, in little more than 24 hours, between last Friday and Saturday, rushed to action, closing all connections with South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Apart from the speed with which it was adopted by practically every country in the world (which had not happened before), the measure is not new and follows others of its kind, which have never, however, proved effective in the global spread of the virus, the original from China, and the hundreds of strains (such as the British, Delta or Amazonian) that have since developed.

In the last few days we have witnessed a flood of information and events that, due to the speed with which they have occurred, cannot be compared with anything that has happened since the beginning of the pandemic, even in its initial phase. The truth is that everything happened too quickly, between the first reports of the existence of a new variant, which began to emerge in the middle of the week, and the closure of all links between the various countries of Southern Africa (including some, such as Mozambique, where the pandemic has even been under control for many weeks and with the lowest numbers of infections and hospitalisations in months, the result of good joint work between health authorities and the population) and practically the whole world, which hastened to place the south of the African continent, the least affected by Covid-19 since its inception in terms of deaths and infections, under a kind of mandatory ‘quarantine’.

Everything is, of course, directly related to the emergence of the new variant, discovered in South Africa. But it is not yet even clear whether it comes from there, and the South Africans have complained about this, that they are being punished for having done only their duty, to investigate. South Africa’s foreign minister said so on Saturday, and Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union’s vaccine delivery alliance, told the BBC yesterday: “What is happening now is inevitable, it is the result of the world’s failure to vaccinate equitably, urgently and quickly. It’s the result of hoarding [of vaccines] by high-income countries of the world, and frankly it’s unacceptable,” he said, then added: “These travel bans are based on politics, not science. It’s wrong… Why are we closing Africa when this virus is already on three continents?”

Of course, there is cause for concern. Unlike the currently dominant variant, Delta, Omicron has a “high number of mutations”, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti. This is why Mozambique and several countries in the region have already announced an increase in border control capacity and are doing their best to prevent a new wave. All this at a time when, for example, in Europe, the contagions and the spread of infections by Covid-19, even with large percentages of the populations already vaccinated, have spread concerns in the old continent.

“These travel bans are based on politics, not science. We are closing Africa when the virus is already on three continents”, said co-chair of the African Union vaccine delivery alliance, Ayoade Alakija

So, between the care needed in the face of a new strain that does indeed deserve redoubled attention and the actions unleashed by much of the world’s politics in the last 72 hours, there does indeed seem to be some asynchrony – on the one hand, politicians around the world have rushed to sever any connection with the region, with all that this implies for the lives of millions of people, putting the continent under a spotlight that, it does not deserve. On the other hand, the scientific community is unanimous on only two things: the new strain deserves attention but its degree of real danger is not defined because there is still a lack of information that could lead to effective conclusions regarding a potential immunity to vaccines or a greater degree of lethality; and in the requests for some calm in the actions taken to contain it, appeals that have multiplied in recent days, stressing that “we must analyse first”, before rushing into analyses and actions taken. Let’s see:

British scientists downplay effects of new variant

Faced with a scenario that only resembles that experienced at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, and after the WHO itself on Friday asked the European governments to “consider taking drastic measures before scientists conclude their further investigations into the new strain” and, without any definitive data, hastened to cut the links with Africa, several British scientists over the weekend relativised the alarm generated by the Omicron strain. And they admit that, despite its many genetic mutations, vaccines are likely to remain effective in preventing the serious disease. To the BBC, immunologist Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford University vaccine research group that developed the covid-19 vaccine for the AstraZeneca lab, explains that many of the mutations in the variant are present in other strains of SARS-CoV-2 in which vaccines have proved effective.

“The mutations [of Omicron] exist in other variants, and vaccines have been able to prevent severe disease with [variants] Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta,” said the researcher from the UK, where the new strain has already been detected.

According to microbiologist Calum Semple, “it is likely that the immunity” conferred by the covid-19 vaccines “still protects” against the severe disease that the new variant may cause.

Semple considered it appropriate that several countries have suspended flights with southern African countries in order to “buy time” to reinforce vaccination and assess the true health effects of the new strain.

It is still unknown at this time, and strictly speaking, if Omicron is more transmissible or dangerous, to the point of causing more severe disease, death and escape the protection conferred by vaccines against covid-19.

On Friday, speaking to the Lusa news agency, microbiologist João Paulo Gomes said that the new strain of SARS-CoV-2, initially detected in South Africa, “is a cause for concern”, given the high number of genetic mutations it presents, particularly in the protein of the virus spicule, which allows it to enter human cells. But for the researcher from the National Institute of Health Dr. Ricardo Jorge, in Portugal, “there is no reason for alarm”, since the existence of several relevant mutations does not imply that the variant is more transmissible or escapes vaccines.

According to João Paulo Gomes, “many of these mutations are in the cell-binding zone and others are mutations known to be associated with antibody binding failure”.

“The problem with this new strain is that it has many more of these mutations than the other variants that have concerned us so far,” he stressed.

New variant not yet in Mozambique

Despite reports in the international press that an Italian citizen, who had come from Mozambique, tested positive to the new strain, in a press release, the Ministry of Health announced on Sunday that, in the last 24 hours, out of the 1,409 people tested, five tested positive to the pandemic virus, totalling 151,520 infections by the virus.

In addition, the institution said that no deaths have been registered and that there are two citizens hospitalised due to the SARS-COV-2 virus in the country. Thus, the total number of deaths by the pandemic virus is 1,940.

Also in this period, 14 recoveries were recorded, bringing the total number of individuals free of the disease to 149,485.

Faced with the emergence of the new strain, the Ministry of Health ensures that “it is reinforcing prevention and control measures against COVID-19, namely: health surveillance, especially at border posts, testing of suspected cases, continuity of the vaccination process against COVID-19 and genomic surveillance”.

To reduce the impact of Omicrom, should it enter the country, the Ministry of Health recommends vaccination, as well as compliance with COVID-19 prevention measures, from “frequent hand washing with soap and water or disinfecting them using alcohol, observing physical distancing, the correct use of the mask to cover the mouth and nose, and observing quarantine until isolation.”

But why is it causing so much concern?

According to a report by the South African Network for Genomic Surveillance, the new variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, or “Spike”, used by the coronavirus to enter cells, “which could have implications for its degree of infectivity”. But it remains to be seen if the variant is more contagious and more lethal or if it could be resistant to vaccines.

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Where did it come from?

Once again, the answer to this question is still based on initial analyses and needs to be confirmed. According to a scientist at the Genetics Institute in London, the new variant may have arisen from an evolution of the virus following chronic infection of a person with a compromised immune system, possibly an untreated HIV patient. South Africa has 8.2 million people living with HIV. The beta variant, the mutation identified last year in the country, may also have come from a person infected with HIV.

How many cases are there now?

On Thursday there were almost 100 cases identified with the new variant in South Africa, with this mutation becoming dominant. The results of PCR tests show that 90 percent of the 1,100 new cases reported on Wednesday relate to B.1.1.529, Tulio de Oliveira, a university professor in South Africa who leads institutions that do gene sequencing at two universities in the country, told Bloomberg.
In Botswana, four cases with the new variant have been identified so far. In Hong Kong, a case has also been identified in a person who arrived from South Africa. This morning, a case of variant B.1.1.529 of Covid-19 was detected in Israel, according to the Israeli Health Ministry, quoted by the international press.

But over the weekend, cases were announced in Brussels, Australia and the Czech Republic.

World closes in on southern Africa

Faced with fears that the new variant will spread, several countries have considered and decided on a series of measures to contain the contagion. The UK was among the first to announce the temporary suspension of flights from six African countries, including South Africa and Mozambique, and is now considering extending the ban to other latitudes such as Angola. Italy, Israel, and the entire European Union followed. Then the USA and Canada, Russia, Australia, the Emirates and several others, such as Portugal, cancelled all air traffic to countries in the region, Mozambique included, of course.

In detail, and since Friday, several countries have announced new measures:

Travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho and Eswatini will not be able to enter the UK unless they are British or Irish citizens, or UK residents.
US officials said foreigners would be barred from travelling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, mirroring what the EU had decreed hours earlier. These measures will come into effect this Monday.
Australia announced on Saturday that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique would be suspended for 14 days. Non-Australians who have been in these countries in the past two weeks are now banned from entering Australia.
Japan announced that, from Saturday, travellers from much of southern Africa will have to be quarantined for 10 days and undergo a total of four tests during that time
India has ordered stricter screening and testing for travellers arriving from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
Canada bans all foreigners who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days.

What impact has it had on the markets?
Fears associated with the new variant caused a sell-off in European stock markets last Friday, prompting a rush to safe haven assets such as the yen. In the commodities market, oil prices sank more than 9% in both New York and London.

Pedro Cativelos

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