SFO saw 26,061 flights in August of 2021 — an over 50% decrease from the total flights the airport saw that same month in 2019. Now with the holidays in full swing, which inevitably means a busier SFO, the State Department on Saturday put eight African countries on a "Do Not Travel" list for U.S. citizens as concern grows over the Omicron variant.
This time last year, millions of us canceled our in-person holiday travel plans — those tickets booked on a wave of wishful post-pandemic optimism during the summer of 2020 — and, instead, chose to do Zoom Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas Day celebrations. 2021 saw the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the Western world; this same year has also seen an ever-growing list of pathogenic variants responsible for causing the novel disease. The Omicron variant — the newest "variant of concern" designated by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) — is stirring up some uncomfortable déjà vu... when COVID-19 surges around this time last year kept many of us from boarding planes set to land thousands of miles away from the Bay Area.
On Saturday, eight African countries — Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi, and South Africa — were given "Do Not Travel" advisories by the State Department. Similarly, travelers from these same eight countries will not be allowed into the United States starting Monday. However, U.S. citizens will be allowed to return with proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of them entering the country.
Per Reuters, U.S. officials said Friday that the Biden administration might also add other countries to the no-travel list, should the variant spread. These recent "Do Not Travel" warnings also come less than three weeks after the United States lifted travel restrictions on South Africa, as well as for 32 other countries, on November 8.
What makes the Omicron variant — described as "B.1.1.529" by W.H.O. — worrisome is its mutated anatomy. This particular variant has been shown to have more mechanisms to evade human immunity than any prior VOC.
This week, the United States donated over 9 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Sub-Saharan Africa. pic.twitter.com/2pUHKNTXA0— Department of State (@StateDept) November 27, 2021
For example: the Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations in proteins that can attach to ACE2 receptors, and, per the Guardian, possesses at least 10 variables in the so-called “receptor-binding domain” (RBD), the specific part of the virus that latches on to the previously described receptor.
By comparison, the Delta variant has just two RBD mutations — theoretically making this latest VOC five times more infections than the already highly-communicable Delta variant.
“The mutations would strongly suggest that it would be more transmissible and that it might evade some of the protection of monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma, and perhaps even antibodies that are induced by a vaccine,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci to George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week earlier Sunday.
Fauci also used his airtime to wax on the importance of getting both fully vaccinated and your applicable booster shot.
#DYK? All adults ages 18+ are eligible for a #COVID19 booster dose. CDC’s COVID Data Tracker now includes booster dose data for different demographic groups, for people ages 65+. View data about who has received a booster dose by race/ethnicity, age & sex: https://t.co/4uLkBEbAjm pic.twitter.com/eRkV6KjmPV— CDC (@CDCgov) November 26, 2021
“I don’t think there’s any possibility that [the Omicron variant] could completely evade any protection by a vaccine,” Fauci said. “It may diminish it a bit, but that’s the reason why you boost.”
The present roaster of vaccines has proved incredibly effective against both the original SARS-CoV-2 strain and VOCs. The Moderna vaccine is has proven to be 50% to 95% effective against the Delta variant, which, at the moment, makes up 99% of all new COVID-19 infections recorded in the United States. The Pfizer vaccine sits between 39% to 96% effective in protecting against infections from the same variant.
However, the general consensus among virologists and other experts in the medical field — and no: Widely shared Facebook posts from baseless accounts don't exist in that same cannon of credibility — is that it's still too early to say anything about the Omicron variant with absolute certainty.
“There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,” said Richard Lessells, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, in a report by Nature. “The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.”
The discovery of the Omicron variant is a pressing example of why global vaccine accessibility remains important in thwarting the worst of the pandemic. Like most communicable pathogens, SARS-CoV-2 mutates as a means to better attach itself to a host organism. In populations that see high vaccination rates — like, say, the Bay Area — it's far more difficult for a virus to infect and replicate, thus leading to fewer chances for it to successfully adapt. This, unfortunately, isn't the case for communities that don't boast those same high vaccination rates, which is generally understood as having 50% or more of a community fully vaccinated.
South Africa has just one-quarter of its population fully vaccinated, largely due to low vaccine availability and accessibility, which pales in comparison to the nearly 60% figure touted by the United States. And South Africa remains the most vaccinated country in all of Africa — where just 6% of the continent’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
A quote from Cyril Ramaphosa, the sitting president of the Republic of South Africa, from earlier in the year now rings with amplified depth: "The urgency to get a vaccine to everyone, everywhere cannot be underestimated."
For more information on Covid-19 vaccines and boosters, as well as how to receive one in the City and County of San Francisco, visit sf.gov/get-vaccinated-against-covid-19.
Top Photo: Getty Images/Spiderplay