How concerned should we be about the latest Covid variants?

Governments must preserve public health and protect people from a disease that already caught everyone unprepared once

Published : 02 Sep 2023 07:26 PM
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Every time I think about COVID-19, I cannot help but relive the memories and trauma of the early, pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, when we were all living under the fear of infection.

As the world continues to try to consign the threat and bad memories of the virus to the pages of the history books, there are recent reports of increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and scientists have identified new variants of concern around the world.

The question on everyone’s mind, especially government officials and health authorities, is whether or not a new wave of COVID-19 is likely to disrupt our world once again, especially with many countries in the Northern Hemisphere bracing for what has become an annual spike in infections with the return of colder weather, on top of the usual seasonal flu cases that can put vulnerable people at risk and add to the strain on overstretched national health systems.

Although COVID-19 has been controlled to a great extent globally, with North Korea recently becoming the latest country to lift precautionary measures, a few months after China did so, some places are starting to see increases in infection and hospitalization rates.

Authorities in the US have warned of newly detected variants of concern, prompting medical experts to reemphasize the need for people in high-risk groups to resume precautionary measures such as wearing masks in public to reduce the risk of potentially deadly infection.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a new variant called BA.2.86 was discovered during routine monitoring of wastewater. It follows similar reports from South Africa, Switzerland, Israel, Denmark and the UK, according the World Health Organization. This new Omicron variant has more than 35 mutations in key portions of the virus compared with XBB.1.5, which has been the dominant variant for most of 2023.

The question on everyone’s mind is whether or not a new wave of COVID-19 is likely to disrupt our world once again.

It is too early to know how virulent or widespread this new variant might be but most countries are carefully monitoring for signs of increased transmission, more severe illness, and higher hospitalization rates. So far, the increases have not reached levels where they would be a major cause for alarm.

However, the most recent UK government statistics show that COVID-19 cases have doubled in recent weeks. They reveal that 875 cases were recorded in England on Aug. 11, compared with 449 a month earlier. Hospital admissions increased by 20 percent in the space of a week. Health authorities also reported that 589 out of 6,500 neighborhoods in England had detected at least three COVID cases in the week ending Aug. 12.

Despite all the cost pressures currently

 affecting authorities in most countries, 

governments must not fail in their duty 

to preserve public health

Experts have been warning for some time that although the virus could mutate and weaken, effectively disappearing as a threat, it could also become more infectious and its effects more serious, potentially rendering current vaccines ineffective.

Although pharmaceutical companies are likely to be able to modify their vaccines to cope with the new variant, blind spots resulting from reduced levels of testing and data gathering as the threat has receded could affect how prepared they are and how quickly they can act.

Attempting to predict the evolution of COVID-19 without effective ongoing data could be harmful, as the vaccinated population’s immunity wanes with time without regular boosters, and vaccines that are highly effective now are not guaranteed to be so as new variants emerge. 

If we add in other factors such as the colder weather as we move into fall, the return to school after the summer break, and the increasing trend of people returning to offices as many employers cut back on remote-working arrangements, then there is the risk of providing a dangerous breeding ground for the virus and new mutations.

That is why experts have advised that awareness campaigns be revived to help highlight the continuing risks, and renewed their calls for masks to be worn in public, at the very least by people who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the virus, and in healthcare settings.

I was on a plane the other day and was one of only five people who opted to wear a face mask during the four-hour flight, to protect not only myself but others from the possible spread of the virus.

The experts also stress that there is a need for a return to more widespread and effective testing and data collection, or at least to make better use of cheaper options such as analysis of wastewater, which can be a valuable indicator about the evolution of the virus and its effects on communities.

Despite all the cost pressures currently affecting authorities in most countries, governments must not fail in their duty to preserve public health and protect people from a disease that already caught everyone unprepared once. Many options are readily available, such as renewed vaccination drives, with modified eligibility based on age and health conditions as required, and increased testing and monitoring, two areas that have been scaled down dramatically. Monitoring helps provide a vital early warning system in case dangerous trends emerge.

As for what the general public can do to help, simple preventative and precautionary measures remain an important tool for limiting the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses. We all hope the world has already seen the worst the coronavirus, so we should not give it any opportunity to reemerge.

Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. Source: Arab News