Note that many aspects regarding this variant are *very* preliminary, as is hopefully highlighted throughout the text.
1. The spread of omicron at this point
Omicron has already been detected in several places including in numerous spots in across Europe. Its further spread across Europe is therefore likely very hard to fully prevent, if it is a more transmissible variant than the Delta variant. Slowing its spread is a different aspect (more on that below).
Many argue that outright travel bans are just hurtful – like indicated above, a variant like this has already spread by the time it is detected (it likely originated/emerged around the start of October – so around 8 weeks ago).
If a country bans travel or trade with countries that reports a new variant, then it will de-incentivize countries from reporting new variants. Intense testing – and possibly [travel] quarantines – comprise a much more sensible approach, many argue. Here’s where more widespread use of face masks (high-grade filtration N95/FFP2-3 masks) and repeated or weekly rapid tests can help. Such rapid tests are excellent at detecting when someone is contagious.
South Africa did not have the first case of this variant, that was Botswana. But South Africa has done a tremendous job in analyzing data related to the emergence of this variant, and may soon deliver the first data – in vitro-based – on how the vaccine fares against it (in their recent briefing on Omicron, local scientists said they would also examine T cell responses).
Yet, South Africa has only fully vaccinated <24% of its population. Meaning this increases the risk that many people fall ill – especially if they get transmission of a highly transmissible variant. Data also indicates that low vaccination rate increases the risk of producing more new variants (see this preprint and this modeling data)
Researchers have from the start highlighted how unfair vaccine distribution is. So one important take home message from Omicron (even if it turns out not to be a serious variant that takes over Delta), should be that vaccine coverage has to increase rapidly on a global scale.
COVID-19 was just the other day detected in 61 (out of 600) passengers from South Africa to the Netherlands. It’s at this point uncertain how many who may have had the Omicron variant. If Omicron does spread as well as some think, then just in and around these few (now known/detected events), we should expect to also see many more cases (so this by itself will tell us how well Omicron may actually take over, and how well/poorly it may transmit). But while it does seem to keep spreading fast locally, we don’t yet know whether Omicron has higher transmisssibility per se. This was also highlighted in ECDC’s recent report, see quote below.
While there is some potentially reassuring data to indicate that at least some infected with the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant may primarily have mild symptoms, this may not tell the whole truth: if the cases one are observing are primarily in young individuals, this may bias the clinical presentation. Young individuals typically have milder COVID-19 symptoms, and are typically more often asymptomatic
Other data indicates it may impact young individuals with moderate to severe disease, but also that this is primarily occurring in unvaccinated individuals, or in partially vaccinated individuals. In this context, it’s important to note that Gauteng only has ~38% fully vaccinated individuals (see the photo below); they’ve primarily used the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines.