The little that is known about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 should be of enough concern to our public health officials for them to make immediate preparations for its inevitable arrival into this country.  

Based on the rapid spread of this newly-identified variant, the imposition of travel restrictions on eight southern African countries, the only concrete step taken so far, may be of little effect in preventing or delaying its arrival within T&T’s borders. 

This country, still in the throes of the third wave of COVID-19 infections driven by the highly virulent Delta variant, cannot afford a disjointed response to this latest twist in the pandemic.  

At the very least, there should be a steady flow of information and updates from Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh and his COVID response team—much more than the assurances he has already given to “monitor the situation and advise the population.” The aim should be to counter at every turn the mistrust and misinformation that have stymied previous efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

This week, the country got a glimpse of the reach and influence of the anti-vaxxers, who managed to draw a few hundred people to the Queen’s Park Savannah for an unauthorised demonstration that bore all the hallmarks of a super-spreader event. 

Sadly, while that activity drew crowds, it was quite the opposite just a stone’s throw away at the Paddock in the Grand Stand, as only a trickle of people were going into that mass vaccination site to get their jabs. 

Countries that are much better positioned than T&T are already on full alert because of the speed with which Omicron is surfacing in various locations. In the few days since it was identified in South Africa, Omicron had been detected in more than a dozen countries and across several continents. 

T&T can’t afford to be complacent. The strongest precautions possible must be taken because scientists have warned of the possibility of a large wave of infections, potentially leading to a high number of hospitalisations. Very stringent response measures will have to be implemented to avoid unsustainable pressure on the already overburdened parallel health system. 

It may be weeks before all the characteristics of the Omicron variant are identified. What is already known is that it has dozens of mutations—some of which are found in other variants, as well as new ones. There are also indications that it might weaken protection from vaccines and natural immunity. 

Omicron, like other viral strains of COVID-19, may have developed by incubating for a long period within an immunosuppressed individual, evolving and adapting to infect cells more efficiently and evading the immune response. 

For these and many other reasons, it is vital to be prepared from now because this is likely to be the sternest pandemic test yet for T&T’s public health sector. 

Health officials here, who have been closely adhering to advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), should note that the agency has designated Omicron as a “variant of concern.”  

Therefore they must act quickly, sustaining and reinforcing current public health measures, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as redoubling surveillance efforts.