COVID Variant “Omicron” Causes Global Concern, But How Was It First Discovered?

According to Reuters, Raquel Viana, chief scientist at Lancet (private testing labs) received the shock of its life by sequencing the genes on eight coronavirus samples. The shock instantly set the stage for a sinking feeling. She quickly phoned her colleague at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg, gene sequencer Daniel Amoako.

Determination of the new variant

As of November 22, Lancet could have concluded that there was a new variant. The S gene could not be detected in this new variant because it had mutated. Omicron was initially dubbed B.1.1.529.

On November 23, the NICD entered the data into the global scientific database GISAID. They soon discovered that scientists based in Botswana and Hong Kong had also, in the meantime, detected the same abnormalities in travelers.

On November 24, the NICD notified the World Health Organization.

Why some South Africans are angry

As cases in South Africa rise, thanks to Omicron, and panicked countries rush to exclude South Africa, despite the variant already being found in around 20 other countries, anger is boiling over in South Africa against allegedly discriminatory treatment.

As scientists receive hate mail for alerting the world, which has been quick to alienate them, to the new strain, Wolfgang Preiser, a virologist at the University of Stellenbosch, told Reuters:

“It could encourage other countries to hide things, or rather not to look.”

United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also expressed his empathy and support for South Africa, saying on Monday:

“Africans cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial scientific and health information with the world.”

Meanwhile, Dutch health authorities announced on Tuesday (November 30) that they had found the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 in cases prior to the identification of the first cases in South Africa. According to CBS NewsBelgium and Germany also said tests show the variant was in their countries before South African health officials reported it to the world.

(With contributions from Reuters, Bloomberg and CBS News.)

Teresa H. Sadler