Burning questions about the Covid-19 Omicron variant and Africa – Op ed

Alhaji U. N’jai: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 29 November 2021:

The discovery of a novel Covid-19 variant (Omicron) in South Africa with significant mutations in its spike protein raises a lot of concerns and questions about the virus. First, a big thank you to South African scientists for diligent sequencing and surveillance, when the rest of the world had relaxed.

Concerns over the Omicron variant hinges on the numerous mutations in its S – protein that potentially makes it more transmissible (can spread more and infect more people) and above all, potentially evade our immune system, and more significantly render our current vaccines useless.

Such a potential Armageddon scenario raises some questions, some of which are specific to Africa. First, it will be good to know how long the Omicron variants has been circulating in Southern Africa undetected?

Second, If it has been circulating in the region for a while, what does the clinical prognosis look like? What is the clinical severity? Are we seeing more hospitalizations or deaths as a result of the new variant?

Third, with limited testing and sequencing for variants, is it likely that variants like Omicron and others have been circulating across Africa but relatively undetected. If this is the case, what level of seroprevalence or natural immunity exists in the populations.

For instance, our testing in Sierra Leone has been limited to Airport, which leaves out possibility of community transmission of variants. Again, we may not have to worry much in Africa, if it deems to have been circulating for a while and resulting in mainly subclinical infections.

Fourth, where does all of this leave our current vaccine efforts, which in Africa has been barely off the ground. Do we abandon the current Covid-19 vaccine campaigns, if current vaccines are found to be non- protective?

If vaccines are proven to be protective, do we continue current vaccinations with possibilities of a booster shot every six months for our population due to waning immunity?

Without any form of mass vaccine production within the continent, would our governments in Africa afford purchasing vaccines or mass booster vaccinations every six months?

Finally, if Covid-19 variants keep coming and it is here to stay with us, do we then embark on more seroprevalence studies to determine level of herd immunity in our populations?

We could then use this knowledge to develop a limited cost-effective strategy for vaccination of mainly vulnerable people and integrate it with robust community surveillance. Chobote!

About the author

Alhaji U Njai Aka is a Senior Biomedicsl Scientist, Professor, Panafrican Scholar, Founder & Chief Strategist of Project 1808, Inc, and a freelance writer.

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