China was severely criticised for the long delay in sharing information and posting the genome sequence data. But when South Africa and Botswana diligently posted the sequence data on the public database, they were penalised. What incentive will countries have in sharing data on a timely fashion.
If China was severely criticised for keeping the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak that began in November 2019 shrouded in secrecy and for sharing the genetic sequence on a public database only on January 12, 2020, countries that are transparent and quick in sharing vital information are not rewarded but are punished.
After the first infection by a new variant — it has 32 mutations in the spike protein alone — was confirmed from a specimen collected on November 9, Botswana and South Africa diligently posted its genetic sequence on the public database, on November 23. Instead, the travel bans now imposed on South Africa and a few other African countries are not only incongruous but can actually be counterproductive.
Such rash decisions disincentivise countries from promptly reporting and sharing vital data with huge public health implications, particularly during the pandemic. The demonstration by Botswana and South Africa of their capability to quickly detect new variants through superior surveillance via genomic sequencing needs to be rewarded through enhanced vaccine access to protect Africa and cut the risk of new variants.
On November 30, the Netherlands reported that samples collected on November 19 and 23, before South Africa announced its findings and the travel bans went into effect, were of the Omicron variant.
While it is unclear whether these people had also visited southern Africa, 14 of the 61 passengers returning from South Africa on November 26 and who tested positive for Omicron showed different strains. This suggests that the people were ‘very probably infected independently… from different sources and in different locations’.
Belgium and Germany too have reported the presence of the variant well before South Africa flagged it. Even if the Omicron variant did not emerge in Europe, the presence of the variant before South Africa notified it and the travel bans strongly suggests that the variant was already spreading in some European countries.
It also reflects the relatively poor surveillance in place there when compared with the two African countries. This underscores the need to have systems in place that delay or reduce the spread of the new variant through testing prior to or upon arrival or the application of quarantine, as recommended by WHO. An indiscriminate travel ban is no solution. Several countries, including India, have already reported cases of the Omicron variant, said to pose a ‘very high’ global risk.
Though disease severity in different categories of people still remains unclear, preliminary evidence suggests that the new variant increases the risk of reinfection and possesses a possible transmission advantage, as seen in the surge in Omicron cases in South Africa. It is time India increases the pace of vaccination and has better adherence to COVID-appropriate behaviour to cut the risk.