Omicron threat around the world and Canada

Just recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified Omicron (B.1.1.529) as SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern. The variant was first reported in South Africa and is of particular concern as it is responsible for a dramatic rise in COVID cases across the provinces of South Africa that surpasses the transmission rate of the delta variant. With its large number of mutations in the spike protein, the structure that permits entry of the virus into target cells, this virus strain is not only highly transmissible but also purported to cause an increased risk of reinfection.

The whole world is on high alert as the United Kingdoms have reported its first cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant. Travellers from Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong, and Germany have also documented incidents of the new strain. In these tumultuous times of global paranoia, Canada is among the countries that have issued new travel restrictions on Nov. 26 for travellers from African countries.

Despite these precautions, experts like Dr. Jeffrey Joy from the University of British Columbia Department of Medicine, have suggested that the travel ban, while it may preemptively delay the appearance of the strain here at home, it is not enough to prevent the appearance of omicron in Canada altogether.

This news has led to pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer claiming plans to adapt and tailor vaccines for the omicron strain. The new strain reiterates the national importance of building vaccines for the whole world, not just Canada.

It is important to note that the effectiveness of the vaccine is best observed when administered immediately and to as many people as possible. Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health claims that while he does not personally believe there will be a scenario in which the vaccines become obsolete as a result of the omicron, he raises the question of whether “there [will be] a tiny hit to vaccine efficacy, or there [will be] a large hit?”

Like the mu variant first detected earlier this year, omicron is a variant of concern not particularly due to its infectivity but rather because of its virulence. It has a large number of escape variants, which are mutations of the virus that can evade the surveillance of the body’s immune system. As this variant is not only rising in number, the reason for worry is certainly its potential for increased resistance to vaccines.

As the reality of this uncertain variant dawns, we must all once again come to terms with our new culture of well-established preventative disease transmission measures – namely, social distancing, masking in public, and hand hygiene. As these strategies have a significant and grounded evidence base in reducing the spread of this global threat from individuals with COVID-19, it becomes all the more urgent for us to create new norms in how we construct and participate in society to respond to the macroscopic threats posed by this microscopic variant.

John Christy Johnson, is a research program officer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada. Peter Anto Johnson is a research program officer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada. Austin A. Mardon, is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, director of the Antarctic Institute of Canada, an Order of Canada member, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Gabriel Kabanda is the Secretary General of the Zimambwe Academy of Sciences.