Letters & Opinion

Africa’s Omicron Experience Part 2: Omicron a Blessing in Disguise?

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

Ever heard of the Good Side of a Bad Thing?

The world just did – in the response of scientists and vaccine manufacturers to the new Omicron Variant of Concern.

Take the following headline: ‘Blessing in Disguise: Omicron variant may be ‘very positive’ news for the world if new Covid mutation kills off more lethal Delta coronavirus.’

It’s from an article by Michiel Willems that appeared in the November 30, 2021 issue of City AM in London, which revealed Omicron was also very good news for the vaccine manufacturing companies, already outpacing each other to produce new medical variants – and more profits.

But first the Good News…

According to Willems, “Around 90% of all new infections in the Johannesburg region are now caused by the Omicron strain but, so far, the COVID death rate and even hospital admissions appear not to be increasing significantly…

“Some experts are therefore cautiously optimistic that – if Omicron turns out to be less lethal but more contagious and dominant than the Delta variant – the new mutation may actually be a blessing in disguise.”

The article continues: “Hundreds of infected people across Southern Africa reportedly complain of nausea, headaches, fatigue and a high pulse rate, but none seem to suffer from a loss of taste or smell, which has been the case with most other COVID mutations.

“Moreover, more and more medics across Southern Africa are confirming that most Omicron-infected patients merely have a severe headache, nausea or dizziness.”

Dr Angelique Coetzee was the first African doctor to suggest to local authorities COVID had mutated into a new strain.

A GP for over three decades and chair of the South African Medical Association, she told various newspapers: “Symptoms are so different and so mild from [non-Omicron] COVID patients I have treated before.”

Coetzee said the symptoms “did not make immediate sense”, with patients including young people of different backgrounds and ethnicities with fatigue and a young child with a high pulse-rate.

Looking at the first data coming out of Southern Africa, virologist Marc van Ranst said: “If the omicron variant is less pathogenic but with greater infectivity, allowing Omicron to replace Delta, this would be very positive.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that preliminary evidence suggests the new variant has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains, including Delta.

It also said there is early evidence to suggest Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.

“It is extremely important… We need to closely monitor the clinical data of Omicron patients in South Africa and worldwide,” Van Ranst stressed.

Omicron has more than 30 mutations – around twice as many as Delta – which make it more transmissible and allows it to evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.

Meanwhile, in a related article in the same publication a day later, Willems reported that “officials in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Czech Republic, Italy and the UK  confirmed the new variant had appeared in their respective countries, leaving governments worldwide scrambling to stop the spread.

More testing was needed and experts said it could take weeks before a clear picture emerges.

“Therefore,” Willems reported, “work is underway to look at tweaking vaccines.”

Within days, Novavax said it had “already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of Omicron and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks”.

Moderna said: “Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern…”

Pfizer and BioNTech said that in the event of a variant which could escape the effects of the vaccines, the firm expects “to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval”.

That the manufacturing companies and the scientists in their employ can offer such quick reactions to the continuing mutations and appearances of new variants is impressive.

But apart from their science and dollars going into providing quick and new medical answers to new problems affecting populations in the richest countries first and foremost, there’s also the pandemic profiteering factor.

Every new variant is Bad News for Humankind, but Very Good News for BIG Pharma – and in 20 months, COVID-19 has raked-in more profits for them than ever imagined.

Meanwhile, the WHO continues to remind the richest nations that until poorest countries have enough vaccines, everyone everywhere else is at stake.

It’s not like COVID-19 is about to simply evaporate…

And despite the richest nations boasting between 60% and 70% vaccination levels, even if Omicron was to phase-out Delta for the better, it definitely won’t happen overnight.

There’s still another fortnight before the scientists unravel the first mysteries of the newest COVID-inspired Variant of Concern, but the early response of the rich nations ignores the fact that the South Africa’s scientists are no less advanced than their counterparts in the G-7 and EU.

Indeed, it was South Africa and India that back in May called – with US President Joe Biden’s backing – for relaxation of BIG Pharma’s patent rights to allow them to produce vaccines in the amounts and at the speed necessary to keep COVID at bay in the developing world.

A week before the South Africans honestly reported seeing what others had before them, the world was mystified that despite the comparative absence of vaccines, continental Africa was among the world’s least COVID-affected regions globally.

However, less than a week later, the continent was given pariah status and punished by the rich nations for being honest, while the corporations and governments collude to make more money out of Humankind’s misery, treating a global illness as a large and lucrative field of cash cows to be milked and medicine as a commodity they can forever bank on.

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