The one that I tried not to name for so long, is now taking over all headlines all across the world again.
Unfortunately, just like with The-One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named from Harry Potter, avoiding the talks about COVID-19 that became sickeningly familiar over the past 20 months didn't help it disappear. And now the new variant is making the world shudder with horror once again.
The omicron variant, as scientists named the new mutation of COVID-19, was discovered less than two weeks ago, and now it's officially made it to North America in general and to Canada in particular, with the first two cases reported in Ontario on Sunday. Then Quebec confirmed another case on Monday, and Ontario reported they are investigating two more potential cases in Hamilton.
The new variant under the technical name B.1.1.529 was first diagnosed in South Africa on Nov. 23, and as of last Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) was setting all the bells a-ring. At this point, there is still no firm data on how bad the situation is, but with the existing information, it does look pretty concerning.
Ever since the vaccines were created and have proved to be working, my only fear remaining was that we won't get to herd immunity levels in time to beat the smart and hardy deathly virus before it finds a way to get around the immunity we build against it. And the developing countries remained the main concern.
It's too early to say that the worst fears proved true. So far, it's known that omicron (which seems to have emerged in South Africa, but we will probably never find patient zero) is a strain with a high number of mutations and it shows a potential for a high degree of transmissibility. Outside South Africa, cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 were reported in Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Israel, Hong Kong, Australia, and some of the western European countries, including Spain, Portugal, the U.K., Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Belgium, as of Monday. The two individuals that tested positive for omicron in Canada recently came from Nigeria, a country that wasn't among the other African states which Canada put on a blacklist for travelling due to pandemic concerns.
Israel, followed by Japan, became the first ones to ban all travels from anywhere in the world due to the spread of omicron.
However, a lot of scientists keep insisting that the western world should focus on global vaccine equity rather than border restrictions. Besides, they warn that strict measures may disincentivize the African countries and the labs from sharing the results of their research of the first cases of the new variant.
Canadian doctors are also calling for the feds to mandate the point-of-arrival testing for everyone coming into the country, irrespective of where they are coming from to ensure the new variant doesn't spread. However, we might have already lost this race against time, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen put it.
The WHO recently stated that it seems that those who were sick with COVID previously could have higher chances of getting omicron over the other known variants of the virus. It still has not been proven if omicron is more contagious or is more dangerous than Delta that superseded the previous strains, spreading globally. There is no direct proof, there are not enough experiments and observations, to say if it can overcome the built immunity either. But with about 50 mutations in its genome, it potentially can be all of it – more contagious and the worst to my understanding – vaccine-resistant.
Officials across the world say omicron is the variant of concern, as WHO labelled it, not of panic. But just a week and a bit after it was discovered, the WHO scientists say that the new variant poses a really high global risk, which means that COVID remains as much of our reality as it was for the last almost two years, whether we want it or not.
According to Johns Hopkins University's coronavirus tracker, as of Monday afternoon, more than 262 million cases of all variants of COVID-19 combined were reported globally, with the virus claiming over 5.2 million lives. Over the past 20 months, over 1.78 million Canadians were diagnosed with COVID. As of Nov. 26, the country lost 29,618 people due to the disease, according to the Government of Canada.
To tell you the truth, before the news about omicron broke, I was sincerely hoping to see us overcoming the pandemic by summer 2022 and continuing with our lives with some new bits and pieces to it. Now I'm holding my breath and waiting for some good, relieving news from the global scientific society. They may come, or not.
But in the meantime, it might be a good idea to reinforce the well-learned safety measures around our work places, households and public areas, to ensure for a happy holiday season.
I know, it feels that it's as old as the hills, but nevertheless, please, keep your distance, wash and/or sanitize your hands regularly, wear clean masks, covering your nose and mouth, and stay home and call a doctor if you are not feeling well.
And enjoy a safe holiday season!