As COVID-19 variants continue to emerge, it is crucial that journalists keep their readers informed with the most current, accurate information to help them make vital decisions.
The omicron variant, which surfaced in late 2021, is different from others in that there is still a lot we do not know about it, said Peter van Heusden, a bioinformatician at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute, during a recent ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum webinar.
Van Heusden theorized that there are many reasons omicron may have developed. It most likely originated from long term infections, he said, which allowed the virus to mutate longer than usual. Other potential causes of omicron include zoonosis, in which the virus would have mutated after a human infected an animal with the original virus strain, and spillback to humans followed. Mutations may have gone undetected in areas with fewer restrictions, and where there is a lack of monitoring and surveillance.
The omicron wave in South Africa progressed faster than previous ones, but there haven’t been as many severe cases, noted van Heusden. Its rapid spread suggests that the variant is more virulent, however, and it is reinfecting people who were previously infected with COVID-19. Although there is not enough yet known about the variant, and we are learning more with each passing day, the emphasis on vaccines remains. “Omicron has now spread all over the world,” he noted.
Unfortunately, South Africa faced consequences after their advanced sequencing technology raised alarm about omicron. Countries like the U.S., for instance, imposed controversial travel bans on South Africa and other nearby countries in the region, penalizing travelers and local economies. “The day South Africa reported is not the date it was found, but people were not ready to listen. They put [the blame] on South Africa; next time no one will provide information,” said Oyewala Tomori, a professor of virology at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria.
Vaccines, tests and sequencing have been inequitably distributed and carried out in Africa and the world at large during the pandemic. This leads to the development of variants like omicron, and previously delta, that may not be caught early enough to combat effectively, as well as other mutations that may go unnoticed. As the virus continues to spread, variants will keep forming, said van Heusden.
“This is a challenge for public health, a challenge for communication — we have a virus whose evolution seems to be driven primarily by evading our immune system,” said Van Heusden. “This doesn’t mean it'll cause more severe disease, but it does mean that keeping our population safe from infection is becoming more difficult with this variant.”
Still, vaccines continue to work, and those getting infected remain largely those who are unvaccinated. “The important thing is the immunity level of the person. This will affect virulence of the variant,” added Tomori.
An ‘infodemic’ within a pandemic
Reporting on variants and ways to combat them is incredibly challenging. News about omicron in the U.K., for instance, has been sensationalized and often lacked important context, Van Heusden noted.
“The confusion with what's happening with omicron is likely to intensify the ‘infodemic’ from people spreading disinformation about public health intervention,” he said. “Communicating in the midst of all this is a challenge.”
Public health is also driven in part by politics. It’s important, however, for health officials to avoid political influence in their work. “If it were in the hands of the politicians, we would get no more reports,” said Tomori. “We should not get ourselves involved in politics.”
Van Heusden highlighted how the constantly evolving nature of the public health crisis makes communication both to governments and the public difficult. “Governments want answers,[but] we are not in a vacuum. What we need to communicate to people is that this is a new virus,” he said. “What we know today might change. The tools we have to fight it might change. We need to be prepared to roll with the punches.”
The African continent lacks a coordinated surveillance system, which can lead to consequences. For instance, there are places where variants could easily go undetected. “Something that starts in South Africa or Nigeria will eventually become a problem for all of Africa. We need to work together [and] collaborate amongst African scientists,'' said Tomori.
Tomori emphasized the need for African governments to prioritize public health and non-pharmaceutical interventions, too. “It is important to keep doing what we are doing; we need to enable African scientists. Whatever information we have available, we make it available and make it known to the people that we are not infallible, and this is the information they need to be looking at.”
The virus is here to stay, and solutions need to mirror that. “Given the failure of African health systems, the failure of global solidarity, we are not going to squash this virus out again. There are aspects of this virus that make this exceptionally difficult. We are going to be fighting this virus for years to come. We need to be humble, and we need to find the next best solution,” said van Heusden, adding that access to masks, testing, time off work, and especially vaccines, are all essential.
“We have to convince people to go [get the vaccine]. The second is the access problem—we are finding it difficult to get vaccines,” he continued. “We have to bring the vaccine effectively to the doorstep. The information on the effectiveness of the vaccines has been looked at by so many groups. The evidence is there. We have forgotten what vaccination campaigns look like.”
Vaccines remain a priority and the evidence from South Africa currently suggests that those who have both the shot and had a previous infection are best protected against the new variant, said van Heusden. “Your protection against getting infected might be reduced [compared with previous strains of the virus], but many experts think — and I agree with them — that the vaccines are still likely to protect against severe disease.”