The emergence of Omicron variant of COVID-19 pandemic in November 2021 has once again generated apprehension (like its Delta variant counterpart) in global public health circles with palpable disruptive impact on international air travels. Prior to the emergence of Omicron variant first identified in South Africa, the World Health Organisation (WHO), had labeled previous variants as (a) Alpha (first identified in United Kingdom), (b) Beta (first identified in South Africa), (c) Gamma (first identified in Brazil), and Delta (first identified in India). All these variants are progenies of the original virus first discovered in China in December 2019.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the COVID-19 Omicron is a ‘Variant of Concern’ (VOC). And put simply, VOC is when changes in a variant have a clinical or public health significance that affects one or more of the following: (a) transmissibility (spread), (b) virulence (severity of disease), (c) vaccine effectiveness, and (d) diagnostic testing (See Public Health Ontario via https://www.publichealthontario.ca/en/diseases-and-conditions/infectious-diseases/respiratory-diseases/novel-coronavirus/variants).
Although information about the Omicron variant is still evolving, it is known that the virus is more transmissible than the Delta variant. Although, the New York Times (16 December 2021) reported that it is two to three times as likely to spread as the Delta variant, the Bloomblerg (9 December 2021) however reported that a study by a Japanese scientist found it be up to 4.2 times transmissible in its early stage than the Delta variant. Furthermore, Aljazeera News (December 18, 20 & 21, 2021) reported the WHO, as saying that Omicron is ‘spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant’ with the number of cases “doubling at least every 3 days” (more specifically in 1.5 to 3 days), (See: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/18/omicron-cases-doubling-at-least-every-3-days-who-says).
Again with respect to immunity, the Omicron variant is said to escape immunity and makes vaccination less effective. Yet vaccination is regarded as key to safety and survival because without it, the risk of hospitalisation, admission into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and ultimately death, are much higher. And fortunately though, the Omicron variant is believed to be milder in severity than the Delta variant, principally because of the benefit of vaccination.
With respect to Omicron and risk of hospitalisation, The Guardian (UK), (Wednesday, December 22, 2021) reported that “the Omicron variant of coronavirus appears to be milder, with a 20%-25% reduced chance of a hospital visit and at least a 40% lower risk of being admitted overnight”. This report was based on a study by the “Imperial College outbreak modelling team led by Prof Neil Ferguson which analysed hospitalisations and vaccine records among all PCR-confirmed Covid cases in England between 1 and 14 December. The dataset included 56,000 cases of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta” (See (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/22/risk-of-hospital-stay-40-lower-with-omicron-than-delta-uk-data-suggests).
On transmissibility of Omicron, evidence across the world reveals that it spreads significantly faster than the Delta variant as WHO earlier observed. Across the world, the Omicron variant has led to an unprecedented spike in cases of infections with many nations recording their highest numbers since the outbreak of the pandemic. As of December 18, 2021, the Time magazine reported that the variant has been detected in 89 countries (See https://time.com/6130002/omicron-variant/). In South Africa where it was first detected, the country recorded an unprecedented 26,976 new cases in 24 hours two days after its president tested positive for the virus (WION via https://www.wionews.com/world/. For Britain, it was 88,000 new cases on Thursday, December 16, 2021, while Denmark recorded its highest figure of 11,000 cases in the same week (WION).
Furthermore, WIONEWS of 17 December 2021 reported that Germany recorded 50,000 new cases in 24 hours with the health minister Karl Lauterbach warning that the country faces massive fifth wave due to the impending massive Omicron wave. Equally, in Northern Ireland, the Sky News (Wednesday, 22 December 2021) reported its health minister as saying that “the nation has recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic”.
Coming back home, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced on Monday, 20 December 2021 that Nigeria has recorded a 500% increase in new COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks. Consequently, the NCDC announced that the country has entered its fourth wave of COVID-19 pandemic in this December 2021. According to the Director-General of NCDC, Dr. Ifedayo Adetifa, Nigeria recorded 1,368 new cases of infections on Monday, 20 December 2021 alone (See The Punch, December 21, 2021). Following this was an unprecedented record for Tuesday, December 21, whose figure was 2,123. Tuesday’s figure was the highest ever daily infection Nigeria has recorded since the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country in February 2020 (NAN, Wednesday, December 22, 2021). The figure for Wednesday was almost 100% increase on that of Tuesday. As The Guardian (Thursday, 23 December 2021 put it “Nigeria recorded a new high of 4,035 new COVID-19 infections in 15 states on Wednesday showing close to 100 per cent increase over the 2,123 infections recorded on Tuesday”. Looking at these figures, one can safely conclude that the rising numbers since the past two weeks have come to be the defining feature of COVID-19 Fourth wave in Nigeria.
In the light of this devastating resurgence, one may want to know what policy measures Nigeria is adopting to mitigate the further spread of Omicron variant. Fortunately, Dr. Adetifa rolled out Nigeria’s policy measures in his press statement on Monday December 20, 2021.
According to Dr. Adedifa, the NCDC is:
launching its Yuletide season campaign themed #CelebrateResponsibly as part of the #TakeResponsibility campaign, which began in February 2020. #CelebrateResponsibly focuses specifically on measures Nigerians need to take to protect themselves and loved ones from COVID-19 during this period. The #CelebrateResponsibly campaign targets the entertainment industry, transport industry, religious settings, media, security personnel, young people, and the general public to promote adherence to COVID-19 preventive measures during this festive period. Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, the Federal Ministry of Health, as well as NCDC and its partners, are therefore intensifying risk communication efforts to remind Nigerians of the risk we face and need to take collective responsibility to reduce transmission of the virus (See The Guardian, December 20, 2021).
Furthermore, according to him:
The Celebrate Responsibly campaign which spans the Christmas holiday through to the start of the new year, emphasizes the responsibility of all Nigerians, the government, private sector, institutions, associations, communities, families and individuals in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign includes the production of key messages, audio and visual materials for wide dissemination. The NCDC urges all individuals, traditional and religious leaders, business owners, the media, transport workers and other institutions and sectors to join the campaign by adopting the key messages and sharing within their networks.
Lastly, Dr. Adetifa appealed to Nigerians to avoid all non-essential travel within and outside Nigeria and also make use of every opportunity provided to get vaccinated against COVID-19, saying that the government has made these vaccines available for all eligible citizens and booster doses available for those previously vaccinated. He also announced that the government policy response to COVID-19 requires a whole-of-society approach, stressing that individuals, families and institutions also need to play their part in protecting one another by ensuring adherence to COVID-19 public health and social measures.
It is hoped that Nigerians would observe these policy measures during this Christmas and holiday period because the Omicron variant is widespread in the air now which many prople wrongly attribute to our usual harmattan (cold and catarrh) season. Since a lot is yet unknown about Omicron, it is advisable to err on the side of caution, than operating within a devastating air of irresponsible behaviour during this festive period.
THIS COLUMN WISHES OUR DEAR READERS HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR, ALL TO GOD’s GLORY
•Prof. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: [email protected].