The frenzy that has gripped the world since the emergence of the newly discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant spilled over into Nigeria on Wednesday, December 1, 2021.
At the crack of dawn, Nigerians woke up to the cheerless news that the dreaded mutant virus had been discovered in the country.
Omicron, the latest coronavirus variant and feared to be potentially the deadliest, continues to ignite fresh concerns across the world. The federal government had earlier denied the presence of the new variant in the country, only to reverse itself less than 24 hours later.
A statement issued by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, confirmed that three cases of the Omicron variant had been detected in the country among air travelers with a history of travel to South Africa.
The news rapidly went viral as Nigerians feared the worst. It was the second time that emergence of a potentially deadly variant of the COVID-19 virus was being confirmed in the country. The first time was in June when the highly contagious Delta variant was first detected.
Once again Nigeria is in the eye of the COVID-19 pandemic just as it was precisely a year ago, at the peak of the pandemic when the number of new cases spiked around the Yuletide. The discovery of Omicron variant only adds a new alarm in the pandemic.
A number of persons expected that Nigeria would be officially included on the list of countries from which flights are restricted and persons with travel plans during the Yuletide particularly had cause to worry. They were proved right when announcements of flight restrictions from Nigeria and other affected countries began making the rounds shortly thereafter. Three days earlier, Indonesia had announced flight restrictions from Nigeria and seven other African countries.
Around the same time, Canada said it had confirmed the Omicron variant in two persons with travel history to Nigeria within the last 14 days. On Wednesday, Ghana also confirmed the Omicron variant in travelers that had been in Nigeria and South Africa within the fortnight.
Since the emergence of the new mutant virus, the USA, Canada, European Union countries, Israel, Indonesia, Australia, and several African countries have restricted or outrightly banned flights from countries recording cases.
Travelers face increasing uncertainty in the coming days and weeks as more countries restrict flights in the bid to keep the Omicron menace at bay. As countries are rushing to impose travel bans on inbound flights amid border closures and revised entry requirements, some Nigerian travelers have already been left stranded even as those with trips planned to affected destinations cannot take off or make alternative arrangements.
The grounding of flights has caught many off guard. With the ever-changing COVID-19-related travel restrictions, taking trips for the rest of 2021 and into 2022 is going to be rather complicated.
Controversy over travel bans
Concerned watchers have described travel bans as unnecessary, and even the WHO urges that borders be left open. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has discouraged travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have “not yielded a meaningful outcome.”
Nevertheless, there are suggestions that travel restrictions may help curb the spread of new coronavirus variants by helping to reduce the number of imported cases and delay the potential outbreak.
But researchers argue that travel restrictions alone are not a panacea, rather, reducing community transmission rates are more important.
A senior scientist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Jinal Bhiman is against travel bans.
“I don’t think travel bans are the best way to combat the new variant. After all, we saw with delta that by the time the variant is identified, it’s already there, it has spread. The first infections take place much earlier,” he stated.
Other experts say the border closures would wreak havoc in African countries that were counting on reopening. For instance in Nigeria, December is traditionally a season for high domestic and international travel and a surge in visitors from across the world is expected.
Besides, only 10 percent of people in Africa have received one dose of a vaccine. Just 2 percent of Nigerians have been vaccinated, shortages and vaccine hesitancy have not helped. There are calls for ramp up of testing and vaccinations rather than travel bans.
According to Joseph Fauver, an assistant professor of genomic surveillance at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre: “If all we do is a travel ban, and we don’t increase testing at airports or provide resources for people to isolate if they do test positive so they can justify missing work — all of that would have to be happening to reduce community transmission.”
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, warned that travel bans created a false sense of security.
“The notion of having a global map of where the variants are and aren’t is just fantasy. I don’t think the travel bans really have much of an impact, other than answering the political pressures that inevitably arise when a new variant emerges.”
Shabir Madhi, a virologist at University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, cautioned that the Omicron variant could yet fizzle out, as other seemingly worrisome versions of the virus had done.
Avoid traveling this Yuletide
The Chairman of Bio-vaccine Board, and a board member of the Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunisation (GAVI), Prof. Oyewale Tomori, however says that banning of flights is not out of place.
Tomori, a foremost Nigerian virologist advised Nigerians in Diaspora not to consider travelling out of their respective locations at the moment.
“If am a Nigerian that is outside the country, I will suspend my coming this Christmas because of the current situation. But unfortunately we are going to have influx of people and those officials at the port of entry may not do the right thing while some people will not go for isolation. If I had the power, I will say stop people from coming in.”
More cases expected
Thousands of Nigerians in South Africa and other affected countries are planning to return to Nigeria to spend the Yuletide with their loved ones. Thousands of Nigerians live in South Africa and many always return for Christmas every December. 61 passengers that arrived Holland earlier in the week from South Africa tested positive to Covid-19 at Schiphol Airport. No flight restrictions have been announced by Nigeria, but with more pet travelling down, there are fears that Nigeria might record an explosion of cases in the coming days.
Nigeria was first to detect the Omicron variant in West Africa. According to the NCDC, with Omicron spreading rapidly globally, it is preparing to identify more cases.
“Our focus is to complete sequencing of recently accrued samples of SARS-COV-2 positive travelers from all countries, especially those from countries that have reported the Omicron variant already,” the NCDC said.
For travelers into and out of Nigeria, the NCDC says it is restoring a mandate to show proof of vaccination or a negative test taken 48 hours before departure. Before arriving in Nigeria, inbound travelers are required to book day two and day seven tests too. The three positive Omicron cases were the result of day two tests.
Beware of Omicron, WHO warns
On Monday, the World Health Organisation issued a red alert on the marauding mutant variant warning that it poses “very high” risks and is likely to spread globally. Scientists continue to analyze data to assess whether Omicron is in fact more contagious, causes more severe disease or increased risk of reinfections, as compared to other variants.
Although the virulence of the variant is yet to be established, the WHO said Omicron has a potential for mutation and more transmissible than the Delta variant that emerged a year ago in India and quickly became the dominant strain.
Scientists say that they would know within next few weeks to what extent Omicron can evade the immunity generated by vaccines or prior infection, and whether it leads to worse clinical symptoms than other variants.
The WHO designated Omicron a Variant of Concern on advice of its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).
It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more easily spread from person to person compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen, but it is also not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta variant.
Omicron, what’s in the name
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a tradition of naming variants of the coronavirus after the Greek alphabet. The first 12 letters had been used to name the previous strains of the virus, but in mid November when the WHO was choosing a name for the recently discovered variant, it skipped the 13th and 14th letters in the Greek alphabet – Nu and Xi – that were next in line.
Rather, the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet – Omicron, which means “small” was chosen. One of the reasons for this deviation was the need to avoid confusion and stigmatisation of any particular region.
Saturday Vanguard gathered that the 13th letter, Nu, was dropped because it sounds like “new” which could lead to confusion, while the 14th letter “Xi” was avoided because it is part of the name of Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
Clash of the variants
Omicron variant (B.1.1.529): First identified in November in southern Africa, days after researchers raised alarms about the variant’s high number of mutations, it was being reported in more than 12 countries.
In South Africa — where nearly 25 percent of the adult population is fully vaccinated, the variant has spread rapidly. Omicron’s genetic profile is unique from other circulating variants. It is a new lineage of the virus.
Classified as by the WHO as a “variant of concern,” omicron has a worrisome number of mutations, including up to 32 identified in the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to human cells. There is concern that this could make it more transmissible and adept at evading the body’s immune defenses, but exactly how it behaves remains unknown.
Delta variant (B.1.617): Frst detected in India, in October and contributed to a devastating surge in infections. It has been reported in no less than 23 countries as at Thursday. Nigeria and Ghana confirmed cases on 1st December.
Mu variant (B.1.621): First reported in Colombia in January and classified as the 5th “variant of interest” by the WHO. It has been identified in more than 39 countries so far. It shares similarities with the beta variant, and appears vaccines may have a diminished impact.
The original variant (D614G): This variant, known to scientists simply as “G,” was discovered in China in January 2020. The “G” variant has become ubiquitous. By July 2020, about 70 percent of the 50,000 genomes of the coronavirus uploaded by researchers worldwide to a shared database carried the variant.
The G variant was the dominant strain when 2020 vaccine trials took place. This coronavirus mutation has taken over the world. Scientists are trying to understand why.