How much of a threat is the Omicron variant of Covid-19 to the world’s hopes of emerging from the pandemic? That’s the question that will agitate world leaders until scientists discover more about its properties, in particular how resistant the variant is to existing vaccines and how severe the disease it causes is.
Older variants, which current vaccines are extremely effective against, have been enough to bring countries to their knees this winter. Several European countries are in lockdown again as healthcare systems across the continent – now the world’s worst-affected region – are stretched to breaking point.
If the Omicron variant is able to substantially evade vaccine-induced immunity, hopes of being able to emerge from the pandemic – already fading as winter waves grow – will be further dented.
In response to the new variant, countries around the world have imposed travel bans on South Africa, where Omicron was first sequenced. That may prevent some seeding of the variant but will not prevent its spread abroad. The first cases have already been recorded in the UK, Austria, Israel and several other countries; it is only a matter of time, it seems, before Omicron will be present in virtually every country.
Indeed, there is no certainty that southern Africa is where the variant first emerged. It was first detected in South Africa because the country has one of the best virus sequencing programmes in the world, but it may have originated elsewhere. The swift cutting off of the nation has been criticised by some who argue that the country is being punished for its effective science and transparency.
The travel bans imposed on southern Africa will slow but not prevent the arrival of Omicron, believes Charlotte Houldcroft, a research associate at the University of Cambridge who studies virus evolution. “Travel restrictions buy time, and countries have to then decide what to do with that time. That might mean boosters or it might be waiting for data. We’ll only know whether the bans were the right decision in early to mid-December.”
The main vaccine manufacturers have said they have started work on new, Omicron-specific boosters, which could be ready in as little as 100 days, according to Pfizer.
The possibility that a vaccine-resistant strain of Covid-19 might emerge was always paramount in policymakers’ minds. We will know within a few weeks whether that scenario has come to pass.