Assistant Opinion Editor Ben Rappaport is heading to South Africa next semester after graduating — and today, he asked me, “Do you think I’ll still be able to go?”
In the last week, South African health authorities discovered a new strain of COVID-19 — the omicron variant — after identifying an outbreak and sequencing samples from individuals who tested positive.
Although it was first identified in South Africa, cases have already been identified in Botswana, Hong Kong and Belgium. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said the variant has "immune escape potential" and potentially increased transmissibility advantage compared to the delta variant, and there is a high to very high risk it will spread in Europe.
There is a very high possibility that the variant is already in the United States, but there are currently no identified cases.
The variant has an unusually high number of mutations in the key spike protein, which is the structure the virus uses to get into healthy cells. Scientists are concerned the mutations could make the new strain more transmissible, allowing it to evade the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide.
Preliminary data in the next few days should provide information as to how the omicron variant affects vaccine efficacy. Concerns about the new strain fueling a transmission surge globally have already arisen, given how quickly the variant became dominant in the regions of South Africa where it’s been found. It also poses a significant risk to reinfection in people who have already gotten the virus.
Vaccine manufacturers, such as Moderna and BioNTech, are looking at potentially boosting people with a larger dose, or new booster candidates to provide better protection against against the new virus strain.
However, Rappaport’s question still lingers — will travel be halted again?
President Joe Biden said that starting Monday, travel will be restricted from South Africa and seven other countries as a precaution. States in the European Union and Canada have also introduced temporary restrictions on all travel from several southern African countries, including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, in addition to South Africa.