Female Speaker 1: Today, we are announcing the B.1.1.529 is a variant of concern named Omicron.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Omicron is a new variant of COVID-19 identified by scientists in South Africa. The World Health Organization categorized it as a variant of concern. It's been found not only in South Africa, but also Europe, Australia, and Hong Kong. News of Omicron led to a slate of new international travel bans and to tumbling global markets. Joining me now is Dr. Bhakti Hansoti, who is associate professor of emergency medicine and international health at Johns Hopkins University and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Dr. Hansoti, thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Bhakti Hansoti: Thank you very much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Response to the news of this new variant was absolutely swift and highly consequential but was it warranted? Is there something more fundamentally concerning about this variant?
Dr. Bhakti Hansoti: I think a lot of red flags were raised and that was appropriate so kudos to the South African health minister for announcing the sequencing, identifying, and announcing this worldwide on Thursday. What is challenging here is there's still a lot unknown and I think many of us have PTSD from the pandemic so this pandemic was a gut-check.
We were all ready to sail into the holidays feeling good about that vaccinations and then we get hit that there's a new variant. Not only that there's a new variant, this new variant has a lot of mutations on the spike protein and the spike protein is what we're all vaccinated with. There's a lot of fear that is now circulating.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What you're describing is exactly my experience of hearing this. I was sitting in my living room with my family for the first time, all of my parents and in-laws in their 70s and 80s. We flip on the NPR, listening to the news and boom, there is this news about the Omicron variant and we're all looking at each other like, "Oh, no." Let's just start with given that we were all sitting in the room together, it's because we were all vaccinated and boosted. Will those vaccinations and booster shots be enough against Omicron?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Enough is a really challenging benchmark to put in place. The vaccinations will have some effect, we know that for sure. The vaccinations provide you with immunity, give the immune system a kickstart. The challenge here is compared to the Delta, where we know that the vaccinations were 98% effectiveness in preventing hospitalizations.
With Omicron, we don't know what level of effectiveness the vaccines will have, but we know they will have some effectiveness and that we know that it will likely still prevent hospitalization and death, which is the ultimate marker of effectiveness.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What's the best course of action? Is this back to even more careful masking, distancing, or is there something else?
Dr. Bhakti Hansoti: There's a couple of things. On a health system, like global scientific community level, the sequences of the virus have been released, government scientists, manufacturing pharmaceutical companies around the world doing two things. One, they looking to get us more information on, "Are the vaccines going to be effective against this newly mutated virus?"
The second is that they're saying like, "Okay. Well, we've done this once before, we can do it again. Can we now strengthen our vaccines by modifying them in some way to make them more effective?" As individuals, you already know the recipe here. We have already been doing this for 20 months. We're all experts on how to keep ourselves safe. Masking, social distancing, when you have Christmas dinner, know who you're having dinner with and what the risks are.
Keeping being mindful of those individuals in their communities or households who have not been able to mount an immune response to it due to illness or medications that they're taking or children. Those under five are still unvaccinated and so protecting those members of our society is really key. We've done this for 20 months I think we all know what to do to keep ourselves safe. We all have a good sense of what our individual risk benefit profile is.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's worth noting that this variant emerged on the continent of Africa and that, if you've been following the maps, the African continent remains the least vaccinated, having the least access to vaccines. I'm wondering if there's also a global narrative here about our need to ensure more equitable access to the vaccines that we do have.
Dr. Bhakti Hansoti: Absolutely. Many media outlets have debated this for the last couple of months. What do we do? Do we get boosters or do we promote global vaccine equity? The answer was always both. The challenges have been the supply chain, the financial applications of vaccine development and delivery. South Africa, a quarter of individuals are fully vaccinated, many other Southern African countries, the number is much lower.
If we want to decrease the amount of circulating virus, then vaccines is one well-established effective strategy to do that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've seen increasing quarantine measures in Europe, even before Omicron, so this was really much more about Delta and about the holiday season as we were initially seeing it, and clearly, the very swift measures around international travel bans.
I'm wondering as you're talking about reducing the amount of virus in circulation, if these kinds of quarantine measures are appropriate, and if we should expect to see some, perhaps certainly, maybe not where we were, a year, year and a half ago, but perhaps more quarantine measures here in the US as well.
Dr. Bhakti Hansoti: Let's talk about them slightly separately. Quarantine measures, which are measures that are taken when an individual is exposed to COVID or becomes COVID positive, should be maintained and should continue to be maintained throughout the pandemic, not only for COVID, but for future pandemics as well. Quarantine is an effective way for individuals to stop onward transmission of the virus.
Regarding travel bans, travel bans are somewhat problematic. They have huge impacts on families, economies, countries, and especially countries like those in Southern Africa where the economy is more vulnerable to travel bans and other such measures. They also have limited effectiveness. We are a globalized society, and while we can easily air travel, there is also land border crossings, which are much more difficult to control.
That being said, I think the travel bans that have implemented for now have bought us a little bit of time for countries such as the US to get ready to be able to develop safe and effective testing, contact tracing, and hopefully, therapeutic measures against the new variant. However, prolonged travel bans are unlikely to be as effective in the overall landscape of the pandemic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Bhakti Hansoti is associate professor of emergency medicine and international health at Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg School of Public Health. As always, thank you for joining us.
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