PODCAST | The Story: The Omicron variant and what we know so far

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The discovery of a new Covid-19 variant has sent the world into panic mode.
The discovery of a new Covid-19 variant has sent the world into panic mode.
  • Health officials believe the new Covid-19 variant is driving a rise in infections in South Africa.
  • The World Health Organisation has categorised it as "a variant of concern".
  • The number of cases appear to be doubling on a daily basis. 

The discovery of a new Covid-19 variant has sent the world into panic mode.

South African scientists announced the discovery of the variant last week, sparking travel bans against the country.

Health officials believe the new variant, named Omicron, is driving up infections, with Gauteng at the epicentre of cases.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his latest address to the nation, condemned the travel bans against South Africa.

South Africans have been left reeling as the tourism and hospitality industries face yet another bleak festive season, leaving many companies on the brink of bankruptcy. 

In this week's episode of The Story, we speak to News24 investigative journalist Kyle Cowan, and international vaccine expert and board chairperson of the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority, Professor Helen Rees.

They unpack what we know so far about the variant, how it's likely to impact the fourth wave of Covid infections, and whether mandatory vaccines are the answer to ending the pandemic.

Cowan believes the travel bans against South Africa will do little to stop the spread of the new variant.

"The problem is that once we sequence these new variants, once we find out about them, it's already too late. It's already weeks into the process and the variant of that virus has already been spreading".

ALSO READ | South African experts unpack Omicron: all you need to know about the new Covid variant that’s sent the world into a spin

He said the issue of mandatory vaccinations was "a difficult one" and would likely end up in the Constitutional Court.

On the one side, on the public health side, it's important because we know that the less people are vaccinated, the more chance the virus will have to live in someone and mutate, but on the other side of this coin, it is our constitutional right not to be forced to do things.

Professor Helen Rees said the Omicron variant is worrying and that is why it's getting so much attention.

She said the numbers are going up very quickly and scientists believe it is highly transmissible.

Furthermore, she said "we are seeing some reinfections that suggests the variant is resistant to antibodies from natural infection".

Rees said it's still too early to tell whether the variant causes more severity of disease, but scientists are looking at hospital admissions to establish that. 

She said in the "scientific debate, one of the views is that this is likely to become an endemic virus, that means its going to be with us just like influenza is and might well become seasonal".

If that is what happens, she believes an annual vaccine will become very important and the "measures we will take will really focus very heavily on vaccinations".

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