AFTER South African scientists seemed to take credit for discovering Omicron ahead of their Botswana peers, the question of who discovered the variant took another twist this week as the UK put its hand up.
The question of who discovered Omicron is one of high importance in scientific and academic circles. It demonstrates scientific prowess in a particular country, and in an age where countries’ competitiveness is being weighed by how they can monitor and handle the virus, this ability is priceless.
Botswana and South Africa have been engaged in an unspoken back and forth over who discovered Omicron and in a recent address, President Mokgweetsi Masisi put the country’s official record forward.
“Shortly after our submission, the Republic of South Africa also submitted a similar concerning variant,” he said.
The Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, meanwhile, has also said it picked Omicron first after spotting an uptick of cases in Gauteng.
While the two countries have not made a fuss about who picked Omicron first, this week, a third hand was raised in the matter.
The United Kingdom’s (UK) health secretary, Sajid Javid, made a curious statement in that country’s legislature.
“There is no country in the world that is better at surveillance of variants and may I remind the honourable gentleman that it was the UK that alerted the world to the threat of Omicron,” Javid said in response to a question from a fellow legislator during debates.
The remarks caused a stir on social media for several reasons, but not because of the entry of a third contender for the title of ‘Omicron -discovery’. The outrage is because of the events that took place after Botswana and South Africa first alerted the world to the new variant, and the UK’s role in these.
On November 25 the UK was amongst the first countries to impose a travel ban on Botswana, SA and four other regional states because earlier that week, genomic scientists in, firstly Botswana, and secondly South Africa, had uploaded DNA sequences to an international platform revealing that they had detected the most mutated variant of the COVID-19 variant yet.
The United States quickly followed the UK’s move, before the European Union did the same. Within days, Botswana and its Southern African neighbours had travel bans slapped on them by more than 60 countries.
In its early days, the new strain was being called the ‘Botswana variant’ before the World Health Organisation (WHO) categorised it as a ‘variant of concern’ meaning it was eligible for its own special name ‘Omicron’.
Last year, the WHO adopted a Greek alphabet based system of naming variants in order to avoid discrimination against countries where these strains are first detected.
That has not helped thanks to the initial global panic over Omicron. Much of it was driven by the UK’s Daily Mail which, on November 26, wrote a long headline that screamed: “New Botswana variant with 32 horrific mutations is the most evolved Covid strain ever and could be worse than Delta – as expert says it may have emerged in an HIV patient.”
To make matters worse, the initial genomic sequencing that told the world the news about a new variant, was brought to the public eye via Twitter, a powerful social media platform where news travels at lightspeed.
Botswana trended in many countries with the untested theory about the link to HIV, conjuring nightmare scenarios of what some called the “super-mutant ninja variant”.
To the country’s credit, scientific voices and politicians within the region joined hands in turning the tide against the hysteria, stressing repeatedly that the fact that a country is the first to report a variant does not mean the variant originated in that country.
Botswana Health Minister, Edwin Dikoloti steadfastly refused to identify the nationalities of the four initial Omicron patients in Botswana, which would have helped shift the global ‘blame game’ away from Botswana.
“We do not subscribe to geo-politicisation of this pandemic or promoting discrimination,” he said in Parliament and at a subsequent media briefing when grilled on the matter.
For his part, President Masisi hinted that the first four cases had been in Europe but declined to give details, focussing his energy on the unfairness of the travel bans.
“The response by some countries to our detection of the Omicron variant is unfortunate as it appears to have caused unnecessary panic amongst the public across the world,” Masisi said in a recent televised address.
“Similarly, it defeats the spirit of multilateral cooperation in dealing with this global pandemic.
“The decision to ban our citizens from travelling to certain countries was hastily made and is not only unfair but is also unjustified.
“While we remain confident that reason and logic will prevail, the harshness of the decision has the effect of shaking our belief in the sincerity of declared friendship and commitment of equality and economic prosperity for us.”
A sea-change has however, taken place in recent weeks, as Omicron has turned up all over the world, particularly in the UK and Europe, underlining the ineffectiveness of travel bans. In fact, this week the UK hit a daily record for new COVID-19 cases, at 78,610.
In addition, the fact that the new variant has turned up in countries with no travel history to Southern Africa and in high numbers, has fortified scientists’ statements that variants do not necessarily originate in the areas where they are first reported.
It has since been revealed that in California, USA, a sample of wastewater collected on November 25 contained Omicron. The randomness of the wastewater sampling suggests the variant was present in the state before this period.
Even as it sweeps the globe, the initial analysis of Omicron appears to be that it is far more transmissible that any other COVID-19 variant, but may cause milder disease, a lesser impact than expected from the Daily Mail’s ‘horrific mutations’ headline.
However, the global ostracisation and fall-out from Omicron has been hardest on Botswana, where uncertainty has been cast over the tourism and mining sectors, which are the economy’s main supports. On Twitter, some users continue to search for “Botswana variant”.