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DUBAI: Just as the world thought it was a milestone in the fight against COVID-19, hopes of a return to normal were dashed when doctors in South Africa reported that around 3,000 of their patients had contracted a new disease, possibly more infectious and potentially a more vaccine-resistant variant of the coronavirus.

The emergence last month of B.1.1.529 – named omicron by the World Health Organization according to its system of designating notable variants after the letters of the Greek alphabet – has thrown governments into a frenzy within weeks only before the busy Christmas and New Year travel season. had to start.

Mask-wearing, social distancing, mass testing and work-from-home rules were quickly re-imposed in many countries to help contain the anticipated spread of the new variant, as governments have closed their borders to travelers. countries where omicron was present.

Despite the rapid response, the variant has already gained a foothold in almost every continent and is expected to become the dominant strain, replacing the previous worrying variant known as the delta.

Emmanuel Kouvousis, senior scientific adviser at Vesta Care, believes that the coronavirus will continue to gain the upper hand until countries have a united action plan to achieve a higher global vaccination rate.

“If I can make a prediction I would say the virus will stay there for at least five years from the day it started,” Kouvousis told Arab News, adding that omicron is unlikely to be the last. COVID-19 mutation, with at least two other dominant strains expected before the end of the pandemic.

As of December 1, the number of people infected with omicron in South Africa had more than doubled to 8,561. At least 11 EU countries have since reported cases of omicron, while health officials in the UK expect to see up to 1 million cases by the end of the year.

Among the Gulf cooperation countries, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman have all reported their first cases of omicron. Israel, Japan and Morocco have completely closed their borders to foreign travelers.

A medical worker prepares a vaccine for the COVID-19 BioNtech-Pfizer coronavirus in Makati City, a suburb of Manila, November 29, 2021 (AFP / File Photo)

Part of the problem, according to Konstantinos Dimitrakopoulos, director and head of the medical division at Intelligent Care Group, is that many people are misinformed about the effect of vaccines and have the false impression that they are completely immune once injected.

“The vaccine does not prevent you from contracting the virus. This does not prevent you from contracting it. This does not prevent you from broadcasting it. It just decreases your chances of dying or having severe symptoms, ”he told Arab News.

“For the vaccine to be the ultimate tool, we would have to press a button and instantly vaccinate billions of people at once” – which is, of course, impossible.

Another problem is the “massive time lag” between the populations receiving the first and second doses of the vaccine, which naturally weakens the fight against a rapidly mutating virus.

“The global community has moved from understanding the virus to testing for the virus, developing vaccines, and then vaccinating people with a time lag, which is a natural lag due to production restrictions,” Dimitrakopoulos said. .

Travelers line up at the check-in counter at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 27, 2021, after several countries banned flights from South Africa following the discovery of the Omicron variant. (AFP)

The great disparity in resources and financial capacity among countries around the world is one of the many factors that have hampered efforts to defeat the virus before it mutates again.

After all, despite the administration of more than 8.4 billion doses of vaccine worldwide in early December, an average of only 7.1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one vaccine.

“We don’t have factories in the world capable of producing the vaccines on such a scale, or of distributing and administering them simultaneously in a very short period of time,” Dimitrakopoulos said.

However, simply sending more vaccines to poorer countries in Africa and Asia in the hope of increasing the vaccination rate is unlikely to solve the problem.

“There is always the question of who is going to walk the last mile and bring the vaccines to each village or area and administer them,” Dimitrakopoulos said.

A lab technician works in a pathology lab equipped to screen for COVID-19 patients and those infected with the Omicron variant arriving from high-risk destinations at a government hospital in Chennai. (AFP)

Another factor is the interdependence of the world and the absence of a uniform global policy for testing for the virus. “As long as the airports are open, the virus has unlimited means of spreading,” Dimitrakopoulos added.

Indeed, most of the world’s population is not adequately covered by a health system that follows strict screening procedures, responds quickly to cases by enforcing self-isolation, and provides treatment and vaccinations against the virus. .

Distribution is not only hampered by logistical challenges in the developing world. The monopolization of vaccines as intellectual property by a handful of large pharmaceutical companies has also limited production, according to Kouvousis.

Smaller “generic companies” do not have access to the recipe for the vaccine and, therefore, are unable to increase production or extend its reach to poorer countries, he said. declared.

With the newly discovered Omicron strain of COVID-19, health officials around the world are urging people to get vaccinated or boosted and get tested for the virus. (AFP)

One of the most worrying factors is widespread public skepticism about vaccinations. Misinformation or lack of education has meant that large segments of the population neglect social distancing and hygiene measures or adamantly oppose receiving a vaccine.

These factors combined have allowed the virus to slip through the cracks again. “There has been a delay in getting the message out globally,” Kouvousis said.

“We lost momentum because of this arrogance as a medical community that feared nothing and thought they could handle everything,” Kouvousis said. “The numbers now say something else. “

According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, the death toll from COVID-19 has now exceeded 5.3 million worldwide.

Dimitrakopoulos agrees that the world has become complacent and that more could have been done before and during the pandemic to better prepare for the initial outbreak and the rise of new variants.

Children accompanied by their parents line up when they arrive to receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, in front of the Parque das Nacoes vaccination center in Lisbon on December 18, 2021 (AFP)

“Our contingency plans have never been tested,” he said. “The first time they were to be tested, they turned out to be ineffective; everything was done ad hoc and on site as the pandemic developed. “

Some countries were better prepared when the pandemic hit, while others have adapted well to contain new variants as they emerge.

One success story is in the United Arab Emirates, where 100 percent of the population received their first dose of the vaccine, and more than 90 percent are now fully immunized.

“When the virus hit (in February 2020), the daily capacity of the UAE market to perform PCR testing was around 5,000 samples,” Dimitrakopoulos said. Today, the UAE has the capacity to perform more than half a million tests per day, process samples and track the source of the virus.

However, the omicron variant has left scientists scrambling to determine its transmissibility and lethality.

“The data takes time to collect and analyze, but we should have a better idea by the end of December whether omicron is as transmissible or more highly transmissible than the delta variant,” Dr Matthew Binnicker, director of virology clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, told Arab News.

Shoppers, some of whom wear face coverings to fight the spread of the virus, walk past shops on Oxford Street in London on December 18, 2021 (AFP)

According to the WHO, “a new variant does not mean that things will necessarily be worse, but it does mean that they will be more uncertain”.

Binnicker added: “The best way to prevent mutations from appearing is to reduce the number of people infected. If the virus cannot infect someone, they do not have the ability to replicate their genome and this prevents mutations from occurring.

Preliminary studies show that a third dose of a vaccine, known as a booster, increases the levels of neutralizing antibodies by 25 times compared to two doses, which alone provide protection of at least 70 for cent against the omicron variant.

“In order to drastically reduce the number of infections, we’ll probably need an overall immunity rate (from vaccination and / or natural immunity) of at least 80 percent,” Binnicker said. “The sooner we can immunize the world’s population, the faster we can reduce the rate of infections and prevent the emergence of new variants. ”

To make this a reality, many in the medical community are embracing the idea of ​​mandatory vaccinations – an idea that may well prove to be politically unpopular. For this reason, Dimitrakopoulos would like the decision not to be in the hands of politicians.

“In order to tackle the global political problem around mandatory vaccinations, a directive should come from health authorities such as the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” he said. “Neither governments nor politicians. “

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