New South African Omicron variant

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified the B.1.1.529 coronavirus strain first detected in South Africa earlier this month as a Variant of Concern (VOC) called Omicron.

While it is still early in the discovery and conclusive information about the variant’s transmissibility and impact on vaccine efficacy is yet to be determined, local health experts believe it will be disastrous if and when it arrives in Trinidad and Tobago with the current low vaccination levels.

“That’s the reality. Once you have opened borders, this variant and any other variant, like other viruses, can spread and reach through overseas travel. It’s not something that’s untoward to think of so it’s something that we have to learn to eventually live with.

“The problem comes into being when we have such low vaccination rates in our population and we haven’t even made it to 46/47 per cent yet fully vaccinated and that is problematic,” geneticist Dr Nicole Ramlachan told Guardian Media yesterday.

There are just some 87 cases detected with the variant. While the bulk is in African countries, five other countries have detected imported cases, including Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.

Guardian Media reached out to Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh for word on whether Government was concerned about the new variant and if the entry protocols locally were robust enough to stave off its importation but got no response up to press time.

However, T&T Medical Association’s PRO Dr Keegan Bhaggan said the country’s border entry protocols could limit the risk of the variant’s importation. He said it was still possible it would still arrive in the coming months, which was why vaccination levels must increase.

“But the reality is, entry controls, closing borders, even lockdowns—these aren’t very useful strategies when we have the disease already spread worldwide. These strategies will not add anything. The purpose of these strategies, if used correctly, is to delay the entry of the virus into the country in order for the country to do additional preparation to be able to handle it,” Bhaggan said.

However, with an underwhelming vaccine uptake despite almost eight months of vaccine availability locally, Dr Ramlachan said, “We might have to move towards more mandatory vaccinations or more restrictions of the unvaccinated just because our healthcare system cannot maintain the level of ICU and HDU cases that we’d see and that we’d continue to see.”

With the abundance of vaccines available, Dr Bhaggan suggested they be used as third doses for those willing to get it.

Research is ongoing into the new variant but a large number of mutations in its spike protein are leading experts globally to believe it will impact the COVID-19 vaccines’ ability to combat it.

However, Dr Ramlachan and Dr Bhaggan said the vaccines’ formulae can be tweaked to account for the variant—much like what is done for influenza (flu) vaccines.