Two years after it emerged in Wuhan, coronavirus has not lost its power to spring nasty shocks. The worrying Omicron variant shows signs that it may be even more transmissible than the highly contagious Delta strain, and able to evade vaccines. If so, it threatens to deal a serious setback to efforts so far to bring the pandemic to an end. If not — and this will become clear only in coming weeks — the world will heave a sigh of relief. Even then, Omicron will have provided a warning that, with millions still not fully vaccinated, a strain with dangerous new characteristics can appear at any moment.
The rapid reaction by scientists in raising the alarm, and governments — including the UK, often slow to respond before — in imposing quarantines and blocking flights from several southern African countries, has at least bought some time. Other countries should recognise, however, that flight restrictions will impose special hardship on developing economies and be ready to provide assistance — above all by rapidly accelerating vaccine supplies. If the additional risk posed by the Omicron variant turns out less than feared, controls should quickly be lifted.
Determining that danger will require further laboratory and epidemiological analysis. For now, the auguries are troubling. Many of Omicron’s unusually large number of 50 mutations — 32 in the key spike protein — are associated with the ability to evade the immune system and spread faster.
A crucial question is whether existing vaccines will maintain their efficacy. Even if they do, should the new strain prove significantly more contagious than the Delta variant, then its faster spread among the unvaccinated population will still lead to higher cases of severe illness and fatalities.
The window of time opened by the rapid scientific response is short. Experience shows it is ultimately impossible to prevent new strains from spreading worldwide; in days, Omicron cases have been found in Israel, Hong Kong, the UK and several European countries. The window should be used to maximum effect: to prepare responses, step up vaccinations which may still at least help to reduce serious illness, and look at adjusting existing vaccines. Restrictions must remain proportionate while the risk level is determined. But it is prudent, too, to increase measures short of full lockdowns that can suppress the spread, such as mask-wearing in public places.
Any more virulent wave would be coming at a delicate time. The economy is recovering, especially in developed countries. But stretched supply chains and labour shortages — which could be worsened by renewed lockdowns — are fuelling inflation. Central banks will have to factor these risks into already finely-balanced decisions on tightening monetary policy.
The big lessons of the new strain are twofold. One is the value of genomic surveillance in providing advance alerts, and the need to spread it further. While South Africa has again demonstrated its expertise, more than 80 per cent of Sars-Cov-2 genomes uploaded to a global repository have come from North America and Europe.
The second, once again, is the importance of speeding up vaccine supplies to lower-income countries. Omicron might have appeared anywhere. But it has long been a concern that delays in inoculating the developing world — quite apart from the moral issues — could leave large reservoirs of infection in which potentially vaccine-resistant mutations could occur and then spread globally. Ensuring equitable access is ever more vital if the world is to win what, it is now clear, promises to be a long war of attrition against the virus.