Arshad Shaikh looks into the questions posed by the onset of the new variant of the Covid 19 virus called ‘Omicron’ that is causing great disconcert all over the world and kindling traumatic memories of the recent past.

Epidemiologist Marc Lipstich prophetically tweeted at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic last year – “Navigating the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re just clambering into a life raft. Dry land is far away.” Just as the 9/11 attacks permanently changed the way we fly, many wondered if the coronavirus would make it forever mandatory to wear masks in public.

As the vaccination programme progressed and the spread of the pandemic was controlled, life limped back to a semblance of what can be termed as ‘near-normal’. But, news about the discovery of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus called ‘Omicron’ put paid to optimism and kindled traumatic memories of the recent past when the Covid-19 wreaked havoc across the globe, bringing some of the mightiest nations to their knees.

So what exactly is this Omicron and why is this new ‘variant of concern’ giving sleepless nights to governments and policymakers? Why are these variants infecting and threatening the lives of people despite being doubly vaccinated? What will be the economic impact of Omicron?

VIRUSES, THEIR VARIANTS AND THE VARIANT OF CONCERN

Viruses are microscopic infectious agents and scientists often debate if they are alive. Viruses can survive only a limited time outside a host cell. The entire process of virus replication involves six steps: 1) attachment, 2) penetration, 3) un-coating, 4) replication, 5) assembly, and 6) release. Once they enter a host cell, they take over its machinery by injecting its genetic material into it i.e. the viral DNA/RNA incorporates itself into the host cell’s genetic material and induces it to replicate the viral genome. Thus, they succeed in making copies of themselves repeatedly and spread its infection.

Another aspect is the mutation of the virus into new variants. When it replicates itself, random errors can occur in its genetic code that carries instructions to make a new virus. These are called mutations and most do not make any difference. Sometimes they give the virus new properties and hence the vaccines have to be updated every year. Vaccines train the body’s immune system to fight the virus. But if the virus mutates and changes too much, a vaccine may no longer work. So, when a virus mutates, it becomes a variant or a slightly different version. If the mutation gives it a new superpower like infecting more cells or spreading in the air more easily, it will make copies of itself faster and become the dominant version. Finding a mutant requires samples and the reading of the infected patient’s genetic code.

A variant becomes a “variant of interest” if they have some mutations that may change the behaviour of the virus or have significant changes in their observable physical properties leading to increased transmissibility and detected in different countries.

Variant of concern is a notch above the variant of interest, namely having demonstrated changes in terms of transmission, severity or impact on diagnostics-therapeutics (treatment of a patient from detection, prevention and combating disease) and vaccines.

OMICRON – THE NEW VARIANT OF CONCERN

The WHO recently announced that the B.1.1.529 variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has been elevated to a “variant of concern”. According to Dr Mike Hansen MD, there are some characteristics of Omicron that make it a serious cause of concern: 1) the specific mutations on the spike protein; 2) the number of mutations (it has over 30) on the spike protein; and 3) this is the fastest spreading Covid variant so far.

Omicron was first detected in South Africa. It is feared that it may cause more infection as well as be more contagious and even be able to evade our vaccines. The billion-dollar question is – will our vaccines be able to tame the Omicron variant. This was the same question that was being asked when we came across the Delta variant. But Delta did not have that many mutations over the spike protein. Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, the company that made the Pfizer vaccine, in an interview to Reuters said – “This variant might be able to infect vaccinated people. We anticipate that infected people who have been vaccinated will still be protected against severe disease. This highly mutant virus came earlier than I had expected. I had expected sometime next year and it’s already with us. I believe in principle at a certain time point we will need a new vaccine against this new variant. The question is how urgent it needs to be available.”

ECONOMIC IMPACT OF OMICRON

Markets operate on sentiment and so as soon as news about a new vicious coronavirus variant hit the news with the WHO declaring that it posed a very high global risk, shares of airlines, hotel chains nosedived, and even the price of oil crashed by $10 a barrel.

There are some concerns and possible scenarios that experts are predicting the impact of the new variant on the global economy. If Omicron is indeed found to be spreading very fast from country to country, some kind of travel restrictions will definitely follow, resulting in a direct slowdown in business and economy.

The other impact will be the curbs and rules imposed on the free movement of people within their own towns and cities. Hotels, restaurants, malls, theatres, transportation and other related trades will feel the heat and will not have a ‘footfall’ that is sufficient to manage a profitable business.

If there are lockdowns in cities that are manufacturing hubs, it could result in disruption in supply chains leading to shortages and price rises. The major economies of the world – India and China that drive global GDP growth are in a very fragile situation economically and might not be able to withstand another demand and supply shock that they experienced last year.

A ‘SIGN’ TO REFLECT

The Qur’ān (51: 20-21) says: “There are many Signs on earth for those of sure faith and in your own selves. Do you not see?” There seems to be a perfect order and symmetry, the result of an extremely sophisticated deliberate design that cannot be the work of an accident or evolution. It is creation of the highest order. In other words, it is the creation of an Omnipotent and Omniscient God.

Apart from the physical and material laws that govern the universe, it is undeniable that there exists a moral code of conduct forming an important component of the Divine Law that runs the universe. Those who do not believe in God call it the ‘law of nature’. This law sends warning signals to humanity that has deviated from recognising the sovereignty of the Creator of the universe and are following their own man-made isms and ideologies.

Sometimes these signs are in the form of natural calamities and catastrophes and sometimes as direct punishment from God that destroys entire civilizations in one go. They cry out to humanity to mend its way and synchronise itself with the Divine Law. The corona pandemic is a clear sign from God. Only those who ‘reflect’ and ‘see’ shall understand its significance and change their lives accordingly.

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