Index > Briefing
Sunday, November 28, 2021
How Can the World Be Ready for the Omicron Variant?

The COVID-19 pandemic has yet to be effectively controlled globally with the Delta variant still dominant, yet more countries are opening up as another outbreak resurfaces. It is worth noting that a new variant of the novel coronavirus, which is highly contagious, has begun to appear in southern Africa, and this potential threat may have a huge impact on the world.

Recently, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa has surged from 312 on November 22 to 2,465 on November 25. On November 25, the South African Ministry of Health and experts announced the discovery of a new variant of the novel coronavirus. The scientific name of the variant is "B.1.1.529". Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s Minister of Health, warned that this virus mutation is a major threat and is responsible for the exponential increase in cases across South Africa. The WHO emergency meeting on November 26 named the mutant Omicron.

According to a report on the website of the scientific journal Nature on November 25, Omicron first appeared in the southern African country of Botswana, and then quickly spread in Gauteng Province, where Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, is located. Local health officials revealed that early detection results showed that of the approximately 1,100 new cases in Gauteng on November 24, 90% were caused by Omicron. Some researchers said that this mutated virus is the most worrying new variant so far. Some unconfirmed data show that the virus is spreading in South Africa much faster than previously thought.

From the information tracking point of view, there are two types of statements regarding the threat of the Omicron variant. The first is that this mutation may be extremely contagious. Some experts said that the mutation degree of the variant has exceeded what they initially thought. For example, the Delta variant sees 2 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that enters human cells, while in the Omicron variant there are 32 mutations. This not only makes it more infectious but may reduce the effectiveness of existing vaccines and break through the immunity gained by people with previous infections. Epidemiologists have warned that the B.1.1.529 variant be 500% more infectious than the Delta variant.

The second argument is that the media reports on the Omicron variant are exaggerated. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, said that so far Omicron only causes mild symptoms, including muscle aches, fatigue, and a slight cough. So far, the infected person has not lost their sense of taste and smell, and there are no obvious symptoms. Coetzee said that the current hospitals in South Africa have not seen the increase of burden due to the new strain. In addition, no people who have been vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine are infected. She also said that the virus will indeed spread, but for now, it is unknown why there are so many exaggerated reports, as everything is still under investigation.

There have been cases of this mutated virus spreading to other regions. As of November 27, the Omicron variant has been detected in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Israel. It has been reported that on November 25, two cases at the Regal Airport Hotel were detected as carriers of the variant, involving a 36-year-old Indian man who arrived in Hong Kong from South Africa and another case is a 62-year-old man who returned to Hong Kong from Canada. This is the first time the new variant was found in Hong Kong. According to Reuters, on November 27, the Dutch health department stated that during the two flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa on November 26, 61 of the more than 600 passengers were tested positive. Now, the health department is conducting further testing to determine whether it is infected with the Omicron strain.

The emergence of the new variant has alerted the world. Some British experts have called for the UK to immediately respond to this latest variant and implement new travel restrictions. Christopher Snowdon, an economist who has always supported the relaxation of restrictions, called for an immediate travel ban. Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, warned that this mutant strain may "soon" dominate in the UK. On November 26, due to the rising number of new infections and concerns about the Omicron variant, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul declared a “state of emergency”. A report of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) says, “We're back in familiar territory - growing concern about a new variant of coronavirus”.

In view of the worries about the new variant, many Western countries have begun to take countermeasures. The UK has announced that six southern African countries, including South Africa and Botswana, will be relisted in the red list of travel restrictions. Direct flights to these countries will be suspended from the noon of November 26, and passengers returning from these countries will be forcibly isolated. On November 26, senior officials of the Biden administration stated that out of concerns about the Omicron variant, they would restrict travel to the United States by non-U.S. citizens from South Africa and seven other countries from November 29. On November 26, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen issued a warning that member states should take precautionary actions to interrupt flights with southern African countries, and Europe needs swift and decisive measures. Before this, France, Italy and other countries had grounded flights from southern African countries.

The Omicron mutant strain has caused concern worldwide, especially when media reports have exacerbated the panic in the market. In this regard, ANBOUND’s founder Chan Kung, who had previously led his team to participate in research concerning SARS and COVID-19’s response and public policy research, said currently it is not easy to draw any conclusions on the emergence and impact of the Omicron variant. Chan Kung believes that, first of all, there are several possibilities for the development and impact of the new variant, which need to be continuously observed and tracked. Secondly, it is necessary to make cautious judgments on virus mutations based on genetic sequencing and data, rather than merely based on media reports. First, when it comes to the so-called superinfection cases it is necessary to use genetic sequencing technology to reveal the whole genome sequence of the coronavirus to determine whether it is the same type of virus, or if it has mutated. Second, even if the genes are sequenced, it is still not possible to conclude that the infection was caused by the same persons because undetected cases are entirely possible.

The infectivity of the Omicron variant and its resistance against vaccines need to be confirmed by researchers, and epidemiological observations are also required. Attention should be specially paid to the potential threats that the Omicron variant may bring. If it proves to be more infectious than the Delta variant, it may cause a new wave of impacts on the world, hence advanced preparations are needed to face such a possibility.

First, it may have an impact on the fragile global economic recovery, further delaying the normalization of the global economic order. In October this year, the expectations at ANBOUND were for the re-emergence of the global economic order from the pandemic at the earliest in autumn of 2022. This outcome, however, will not be unconditional. If there is a new wave of outbreaks in the spring of 2022, and countries’ response policies remain disorderly, then it is likely that the economic order will only gradually return to normal in 2023. The emergence of the Omicron variant has brought new variables. In particular, the mutation started to appear in parts of Africa that are densely populated and with scarce medical resources, and a low COVID-19 vaccination rate. If it spreads, it may cause a major blow to the African region.

Secondly, the global opening of international travel, the restoration of trade, and the supply chain system may be hit again. In recent months, many countries have gradually liberalized restrictions on international travel, and the constrained global supply chain system has begun to loosen systematically. If the emergence of the Omicron variant mutation triggers countries to lockdown again, it may interrupt the recovery of the global supply chain and the opening up of international travel.

Thirdly, this may affect the process of tightening monetary policy by global central banks. The news of the Omicron mutant has caused panic in the global market. The three major U.S. stock indexes plummeted on November 26. The Dow closed down 905.04 points, or 2.53%, the largest single-day drop this year; the Nasdaq fell 353.57 points, or 2.23. %; The S&P 500 Index fell 106.84 points or 2.27%. European stock markets saw even greater declines. The UK FTSE 100 index fell 4.22%, the German DAX 30 index fell 3.47%, the FTSE Italy MIB index fell 4.00%, and the European Stoxx50 index fell 4.74%. Although this is only an immediate reaction from the capital market, it will affect the process of central banks' tightening of monetary policies, and concerns about the pandemic may exceed those about inflation.

Fourthly, the turn of event may have an impact on major international events and competitions such as the Beijing Winter Olympics. The Beijing Winter Olympics is the world's largest international sports event in the period from 2021 to 2024 until the Paris Olympics is held, and Beijing has entered an intense countdown preparation. To this end, Beijing has significantly raised the standards for pandemic prevention and control and spared no effort to ensure the smooth progress of the event. Whether the new variant will lead to rapid outbreaks remains uncertain for now, and further genetic sequencing and mathematical statistics are still required to determine if it is the case. However, Beijing still needs to maintain vigilance. The Beijing Winter Olympics has decided to cancel the admission of foreign spectators, but in theory, foreign athletes, coaches, game staff, foreign journalists, etc. may still be infected. In addition, the admission of domestic spectators could cause the spread as well. Therefore, when necessary, Beijing needs to strengthen the monitoring of virus mutation and its spread, as well as impose direct and indirect travel restrictions on relevant countries.

In this current stage, Chan Kung presents several suggestions: (1) Genome monitoring must be strengthened to monitor viral genes, to identify and track when the variant can spread. (2) Promote the potential demand for vaccine manufacturers to develop Omicron specific vaccines. Although this may not be necessary, yet if Omicron greatly affects the effectiveness of existing vaccines, then new vaccination rollout will be critical. (3) The world must cooperate to avoid turning Africa into an epicenter of a new global outbreak. Global efforts must be promoted to get more Africans vaccinated. Many Africans remain unvaccinated, and less than a quarter of the population in South Africa has been vaccinated, which will affect the world’s outbreaks. (4) ANBOUND warns of a worst-case scenario in which humanity’s efforts to prevent and control viruses lag significantly behind the emergence and spread of virus mutations, and there are already signs of this. Once this happens, the result will be undoubtedly disastrous for the world.

Final analysis conclusion:

The Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has introduced new variables into the world, where genomic sequencing and data statistics should be used to determine its infectivity and transmission. The world must be prepared for the global spread of this new variant. Once large-scale spread occurs, global pandemic prevention, economic recovery, capital markets, supply chain recovery, international opening, major international events, etc., may all be affected. As things stand, we must keep an eye on its progress and plan for appropriate responses and actions ahead of time.