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The big story: Omi – who?

Like other South Africans, your head is probably spinning with the news of the Omicron variant. It happened so quickly, and before we knew it, plans to see loved ones from abroad after years of separation were cruelly halted as many in the developed world, like Britain, quickly hit us with shock travel bans. 

We’ll get on to what you need to know about this new variant in a bit. First, we have to join other global experts in calling out the absurdity and plain racism of the reaction to South Africa. 😠

Our brilliant scientists first detected the variant using advanced gene-sequencing. This method analyses the differences between sequences; multiple differences may result in a new variant. Instead of being hailed for our scientists’ acuity, the country was blamed as the variant’s origin.

However, new evidence shows the variant appeared in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe including Scotland around 20 November, nearly a week before it was detected here, The Guardian reported. The variant is now present in more than 20 countries, the World Health Organisation announced.

So why put South Africa in the naughty corner? Is it because we were transparent about our findings, because we’re underdeveloped, or is it a blatant form of racism? 

The world’s largely knee-jerk reaction has ruined plans for families long separated by the virus, leaving some travelers stranded at airports, and it has serious economic consequences. Tourism booms around this time of the year, so our economy will take a huge knock (that’s the last thing we need right now). 

Many outlets, including the New York Times and The Guardian in the UK, have noted that instead of punishing South Africa in a way that hurts our economy, we should be rewarded or at least thanked for alerting the world to the new variant.

Our talented, speedy and honest scientists are the real stars here. As Jeffrey Barrett, leader of the global Covid-19 genomics initiative, put it: “The teams in Africa who detected the new Covid genome moved quickly. Their actions should not result in economic loss.” 

🔸_What is Omicron?_  

Now let’s tell you what we know so far about this new variant. No, it’s not a new Transformer, 🤖 but it is surfing the upcoming fourth wave in SA. As we told you last week, Omicron has a high rate of mutations; it changes quickly, so it’s tough for scientists to get a handle on its effects. 

But so far, here’s what the experts know – and what they don’t:

🔹It’s different. As one group of SA scientists put it: “It does not seem to be a “daughter of delta” or “grandson of beta”; instead it represents a new lineage of SARS-CoV-2.

🔹Scientists are yet to understand its transmissibility and severity but chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, Barry Schoub, said that cases so far have been mild to moderate. 

🔹It is not yet clear whether the variant will evade the vaccine. The delta variant, which was dominant for a while, responded well to the vaccine. There is no evidence yet that a new vaccine will be needed. Scientists say vaccinations and non-pharmaceutical interventions still work. 

Ultimately, don’t panic and just do what you can to stay safe. 

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 2 December 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates