The Malta Business Weekly

A December in Covid-limbo


On Friday, a new Covid-19 variant, first identified in southern Africa was revealed, and by Saturday, the World Health Organizati­on (WHO) had named it Omicron and declared it a “variant of concern”. This is because it carries a high number of mutations on its spike protein linked with increased transmissi­bility, which may decrease the effectiven­ess of measures such as vaccinatio­ns and treatments. As of today, no cases have been reported in Malta. As the world figures out how to tackle this new variant, it’s fair to say the business community is questionin­g whether increased restrictio­ns will come into effect locally. Evidence suggests the new variant may be more transmissi­ble than Delta, but many unknowns are still at play.

Variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are not unusual. The more the virus spreads, the more likely it is to mutate. Mutations arise as the virus multiplies after it infects a human host. Once inside a person, a virus’ job is to instruct its human host’s cells to make copies of the virus that infect more cells and eventually other people. As the virus rapidly multiplies its genetic material, random errors in its DNA can occur during the copying process; these are known as mutations. Moderna’s chief executive, Stephane Bancel, has gone on the record, talking to news outlets saying he does not think the Covid-19 vaccines will be as effective against the Omicron variant. However, he did say he wasn’t sure how much of a difference there would be.

Prof. Sharon Lewin is a world-renowned infectious diseases expert and the director of the Doherty Institute in Melbourne and she said: “The WHO chose to press that ‘variant of concern’ button very early, after seeing a new strain rapidly replace Delta in South Africa and assumed, therefore, it must be more transmissi­ble. But once you push that button, it creates chaos around the world. We should only be ramping up our response dramatical­ly, including closing borders, if there is a real variant of concern, meaning it’s causing more severe disease or deaths and evading the immune response. We don’t know all that yet. As a global community, we need to think about what this means when we identify a variant of concern because we don’t really have an agreed plan.”

It must be acknowledg­ed that South Africa is owed plenty of gratitude for identifyin­g the variant and bringing it to the world’s attention, knowing the implicatio­ns this would likely have for the country and others affected by this variant. The scientists and health authoritie­s were fast to share the informatio­n about Omicron with the rest of the world. Although it meant borders and travel were shut to them, something the South African authoritie­s were highly critical of, it also meant other scientists could get to work uncovering the much-needed informatio­n about Omicron.

It is a good move for countries that have not yet seen the variant to act quickly by putting in travel restrictio­ns and carefully genome sequencing high-risk individual­s; we are lucky that the Omicron variant is detectable through PCR testing.

As for here, we must tread with caution and not hit the panic button. So far, Malta’s Health Minister, Chris Fearne, has announced that Malta would ban travel to and from regions where the new coronaviru­s variant cases were detected. If anything, the increase of new variants highlights the responsibi­lity wealthy countries have in vaccinatin­g the rest of the world and their own population­s.

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