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Understanding Omicron
Sensemaker audio

Understanding Omicron

Understanding Omicron

Scientists think the new mutation of Covid-19 could be linked to HIV. How?


Transcript
Nimo Omer, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo, and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world. 

Today, could HIV be linked to the new variant of Covid-19?

*** 

“This morning the world is racing to shut out or at least slow down the alarming new Covid variant first found in South Africa…”

TODAY

“Belgian health officials have confirmed the first case of the B.1.1.529 Covid variant in Europe…”

Euronews

“Two cases of the newly identified variant of coronavirus have now been identified here in the United Kingdom…”

BBC News

Last week, South Africa told the rest of the world about a new variant of Covid.

It’s been named Omicron by the World Health Organisation or WHO. 

And it’s causing anxiety across the world. 

Reports that the Omicron variant is more infectious have led to countries closing their borders, banning travel from Southern Africa and reintroducing the wearing of masks in shops and on public transport.

“… but we now need to go further and implement a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from across the whole world… We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result…” 

Boris Johnson

We’ve been here before.

In December 2020, South Africa reported a new variant – known as Beta – and now, one year on, their scientists are doing so again.. 

Francois Venter is one of them.

He’s a professor of medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He’s an adviser to the South African government and has worked closely with the WHO on Covid-19. 

But it’s Francois Venter’s main speciality that’s of particular interest.

He’s an expert in HIV Medicine and there’s a growing sense among scientists like Francois Venter that South Africa’s HIV epidemic could be a factor in the mutation of Covid. 

So, is there a potential link? And why is South Africa on the front line when it comes to new variants?   

***

“Now when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, South Africa has an adequate supply but it’s proving tough to get jabs into people’s arms. So far just under 10 million people have been fully vaccinated against the virus, that’s less than 25 percent of adults in the country.”

DW News

Around 25 percent of people in South Africa have received two doses of the Covid vaccine. 

That’s pretty low when you compare it to 68 percent in the UK, 64 percent in North America and 62 percent in Europe. 

Countries in Southern Africa have been critical of the West for hoarding vaccines.  They say failures in the vaccination effort globally have allowed the virus to mutate.

“We need those who have hoarded the vaccines to release the vaccines so that other countries can have them… and some countries have even gone beyond and acquired up to four times what their countries need… and now this is being done to the exclusion to other countries in the world.”

Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa

But vaccinated or not, while most people clear Covid from their bodies after being infected, there are several reports of prolonged infection – that’s six months or more – among individuals whose immune systems are suppressed.   

For them, the body acts like an incubator. The perfect environment for the virus to mutate. 

People with untreated HIV may be especially susceptible to Covid.

So, what’s the link to South Africa?

***

“Well South Africa has the biggest and most high profile HIV epidemic in the world with an estimated 7.7 million…”

Newzroom Afrika

South Africa is in the grip of an HIV epidemic.  And only 71 percent of infected people have access to antiretroviral therapies.

That leaves a lot of people whose immunity is suppressed and so, it’s possible that the Beta and the Omicron variants could have been driven by the HIV epidemic.   

Now it would be wrong to assume this development – if confirmed – isn’t happening in neighbouring countries but because South Africa has put huge resources into HIV research, it has a lot of scientists who are expert in identifying viral mutations.

The rest of the world has a lot to thank them for.  

But more data is needed. Without it, we won’t know how dangerous or contagious Omicron is.


Here’s Dr Angelique Coetzee, one of the first doctors in South Africa to see the new strain of Coronavirus.

“Looking at the mildness of the symptoms that we are seeing currently, there is no reason for panicking as we don’t see severely ill patients.

The Telegraph

Mild symptoms are good news – relatively – but the truth is, there is still much we do not know.  

What we do know is that the poor global vaccine effort, combined with limited access to antiviral therapies for people with HIV, appears to help Covid to mutate. 

And, as we’ve heard so many times already, no one is safe until everyone is safe.  

Today’s story was written and produced by Nimo Omer and Imy Harper.