Vero Hong Kong
A projector image showing immunofluorescence staining of Omicron infected Vero E6 cells is displayed on a screen in Hong Kong on December 1, 2021. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have succeeded in isolating the Omicron coronavirus variant from clinical specimens, making them the first research team in Asia to do it, the university said. Image Credit: AP

Omicron, a still largely-unknown COVID-19 variant, presents a clear and present danger to world health and economy. So far, the only known thing about this enemy is that it is incredibly heavily mutated, spreads very rapidly and has dominated all infections in South Africa within two weeks.

Yet, in the face of Omicron, man possesses robust weapons. The first weapon is open science and transparency. The second, an early warning system. The others: vaccines, new pills, nasal shots, and a spirit of altruism. Against such arsenal, no pathogen can stand for long.

Now, there’s one good news out today: People with boosters were foond to have 90% lower risk of severe outcome. This is part of an initial report Israeli report which shows the variant is 1.3x more transmissible than Delta, with the unvaccinated have 2.4x greater risk of severe COVID, according to Israel’s Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz. 

While the world awaits more data on Omicron, the following are arguably man’s best tools against this virus and similar threats:

1. Open science, transparency

Science works best when it is open, subject to peer-review, and shared promptly. From vaccine researchers, to the “mutation detectives” looking at the slightest variations in viruses, an appropriate response can only come from an atmosphere of openness.

One plus with Omicron: South African scientists had been forthcoming with their work, thereby allowing the world to get on top of this newly-discovered variant rather quickly. As soon as African experts found the unusual mutations in patients with SARS-CoV-2, they unreservedly alerted the world.

Such transparency has led scientists past and present to a better understanding of diseases overall. Today, clinical researchers can quickly post their work early, thanks to “pre-print” research servers such as Biorxiv. Man's ability to pool and share information, with no prevarications, is arguably the most powerful tool humanity has against this pandemic.

2. Early warning system

Biological creatures, viruses among them, mutate all the time. So do humans. But now, any unusual mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 are tracked almost in real time, thanks to global surveillance system in place, in which data is constantly updated on biology servers (such as GISAID).

This forms an “early warning system” — aided by advanced genetic sequencing technology. The job of analysing genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2 rests with “phylogeneticists” who work day and night to establish patterns, and boost understanding of viral mutations. Now, every new COVID-19 variants will be known almost immediately, thanks in no small part to people who assiduously track them and alert the world about anything unusual they find.

delta vs omicron
DELTA VS OMICRON: Images of the Delta and Omicron variants from the Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome, showing mutations compared to the original SARS CoV-2 spike. Image Credit: AFP

Now, more countries, including the UAE and the US, are reporting people found with the Omicron variant. This is good. It is always better to deal with a known enemy than an unknown one. This means testing and genome sequencing work. Prompt release of the correct information about a pathogen is one of man’s best weapons.

3. Vaccines

Here’s one oft-ignored fact: all vaccines approved today were designed to protect against the original virus first seen in Wuhan almost two years ago. That version is rarely found today. Yet the current vaccines have been found to be highly effective, even up until Delta’s emergence.

$50B

The estimate cost of vaccinating the world, according to OECD.

A vaccine specifically against Omicron can now be developed and deployed rather quickly — but only if experts see the current ones don’t work. Even if omicron leads to more breakthrough cases (this has not been proven yet), current vaccines still do confer a good level of protection against hospitalisation and deaths — up until Delta.

Vaccines kids 5-11
Pfizer's CEO Albert Bourla said they could have a new vaccine against Omicron “in less than 100 days” — and only if the current coronavirus vaccine protects less.

While Omicron has caused a wave of concern, that’s actually good news, say experts. For one, it highlights the need for a dynamic response and tackle the great inequities when it comes to the global distribution of vaccines.

COVID vaccines were been developed in record time. Support from governments made it possible. In particular, mRNA vaccines — vaccine-making turned into a software — have been proven both effective and safe. Hundreds of millions of people had been inoculated using this revolutionary method.

Pfizer's CEO Albert Bourla said they could have a new vaccine against Omicron “in less than 100 days” — and only if the current coronavirus vaccine protects less.

Pfizer has already started work for the new vaccine. The same with Moderna. Pfizer itself has already developed shots for the Beta and Delta variants — but these were not used because the original vaccine remained effective. Given their safety profile, drug regulators may now allow vaccines to be tweaked for new variants in a much shorter time.

$2.96trillion

estimate of hit on global economy due to pandemic, according to Statista.

How much would it cost to vaccinate the world?

The OECD figures it would cost $50 billion to vaccinated people on the entire planet. On the other hand, Statista estimates that the global economy has taken a $2.96-trillion hit in 2020 alone, due to a huge drop in economic growth from the pandemic.

Africa vaccination
Most of Africa’s people remain unvaccinated (Africa has fully vaccinated 77 million people, just 6% of its population), and many of its people are financially constrained.

Omicron has sounded a clarion call for greater “vaccine equity” — if the vaccine isn’t everywhere, this pandemic won’t go anywhere, WHO chief Tedros Gebreyesus posted on Twitter on Monday.

4. COVID pills, nasal shots

Here’s another bit of good news. Merck’s mulnopiravir, a pill meant for use by unvaccinated people at risk for severe COVID-19 within days of the onset of symptoms, has been approved on Tuesday (November 30, 2021) in the US.

Pfizer is also developing its own antiviral, Paxlovid, expected to be ready in coming days. Early data suggests the Pfizer drug is even more effective, though less safety data is available so far on Paxlovid.

In clinical trials, Pfizer’s new antivirals helped cut down death rates and hospitalisation in high-risk patients by as much as 90%. The pills’ efficacy are not affected by variant mutations — they target enzymes that the virus needs to replicate.

This antiviral drugs are currently expensive, and are not widely available. Both Merck and Pfizer have talked of cheaper access for lower- and middle-income countries, through the UN’s medicines patent pool (MPP) regime.

Several intra-nasal vaccines against COVID are also now in clinical trials. Separate teams of scientists from India, China, US, UK, Russia, Japan, Cuba and Thailand, among others, are working on different nasal vaccines against COVID.

5. Altruism

Tens of thousands of vaccine trial volunteers have offered their bodies to test the efficacy of vaccines that were later distributed to the general population. Such altruism was never seen at any other time in human history. It’s another moat man has against this coronavirus.

Online crowd-sourcing of clinical trial volunteers has proven extremely helpful in carrying out double-blinded, placebo-controlled and randomised trials — the gold standard of research.

This helped rapidly advance man’s anti-COVID arsenal. Parents of young ones have offered their children for these tests. The result: trials and approved progressed at a rapid clip.

vaccine children-1632305884287
(FILES) This file photo taken on July 23, 2021 shows a minor receiving a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination center in Asuncion, Paraguay. - Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday, September 20, 2021 said trial results showed their coronavirus vaccine was safe and produced a robust immune response in children aged five to 11, adding that they would seek regulatory approval shortly. (Photo by NORBERTO DUARTE / AFP) Image Credit: AFP

6. Global citizenship 

Solutions exist to tackle omicron, delta and the variants before them. We’ve seen how joint, cross-border work between scientists, drug/generics manufacturers, volunteers and governments led to unprecedented breakthroughs against the pandemic.

Containment needs to target the pathogen, not passports of people, say experts. This can be done with proper targeting — of the pathogen itself. By notifying the world promptly, the South African doctors did an honest and impressive work; their government acted in good faith, as good global citizens.

south africa vaccine covid
A woman receives a dose of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, as South Africa rolls out vaccination to the elderly at the Munsieville Care for the Aged Centre outside Johannesburg, South Africa May 17, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Let it be said from the housetops: Rich countries must provide badly-needed support, in order for such vaccines, drugs and nasal sprays (when approved) to go wherever they are needed — or when there are outbreaks. Africa, in particular, needs the world's support, not isolation or discrimination.

The US and G20 countries should provide the African continent with resources to combat their own outbreak. There will be snags in production, distribution and pricing; but with great power comes great responsibility.

It can be done

By embracing a global outlook, a sense of shared future and determination, today’s generation of leaders working with the people of good will are fully equipped to crush the pandemic, the way humanity has won over others such pathogens, like smallpox and polio.

That’s the only way we can demonstrate that humans are not just like other living organisms. We are a learning species. And viruses are just, well, mutating organisms.