While the Biden administration and the nation’s top health officials work to contain any further spread, there are questions now being asked whether the variant really originated in Africa.
Penalizing Surveillance System
CNBC has reported that during a press briefing held by the World Health Organization’s (WHO's) Africa office on Thursday, some experts claimed that the origin of the Omicron variant was unknown and later criticized restrictive travel measures now placed on many southern African nations.
“Our surveillance system in the global world is not perfect yet,” Dr. Abdou Salam Gueye, the regional emergency director in WHO’s Africa office, said during a press briefing.
“When we detect a variant or virus … usually we’re going to detect it weeks after it started its evolution. The only thing we are sure about, when a country detects a virus, is that that country’s surveillance system is good. That’s what happened in southern Africa, so this discourages the travel ban even more because … it is like a measure against a good surveillance system,” he continued.
“It’s only (with) the investigations that are being conducted that we’re going to know more about the origins of this virus,” he continued, adding that it was “not unexpected” that omicron cases are now being detected in Europe and elsewhere.
Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a senior virologist at the WHO’s Africa office, shared similar sentiments with CNBC.
“It seems that the majority of these countries that are (reporting omicron cases) now … are coming from abroad rather than here in Africa, so we don’t know where it started and we need very good scientific evidence to study the molecular evolution of the omicron variant further,” she said.
Long Fight Ahead
Meanwhile, it appears that the fight against omicron will likely be a long one. Over the past weekend, the WHO noted in a preliminary technical brief “that the likelihood of potential further spread of omicron at the global level is high.”
The Omicron variant is known to have more than thirty mutations to the spike protein, which could be potentially associated with a decrease in antibody protection and higher transmissibility rates.
“This mutational profile is very different from other variants of interest and concern, and although some mutations are also found in delta, this is not delta,” White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters earlier this week during a White House COVID task force briefing.
“These mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility and immune evasion,” he continued.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.