For nearly two years throughout the pandemic, the World Health Organisation has designated eight forms of Covid-19 as "variants of concern", its highest label of caution. Today, Omicron, which was detected in South Africa in November, is taking hold internationally at record rates.
The strain is notable for two main reasons. First, it appears significantly more contagious than previous ones. Yesterday the WHO described the risk from Omicron as "very high", after global Covid-19 case numbers rose by 11 per cent last week. The Netherlands even announced a full lockdown over the Christmas period. Saudi Arabia said yesterday that all citizens and residents there would have to wear masks at all times and maintain social distancing.
In the UAE, Abu Dhabi's public and private schools will switch to distance learning for the first two weeks of the new term, which starts January 3. In Dubai, classes will be in person, but extra-curricular activities, school trips and gatherings would not be permitted during the first two weeks. Dubai has also recently announced guidelines for New Year’s Eve in the emirate. Masks will have to be worn at all public celebrations and there will be firework displays in 29 separate locations in order to discourage mass gatherings. Motorists entering Abu Dhabi from other emirates will have to show a green pass on the Al Hosn app.
The second reason Omicron is notable is that it is not as lethal. Early evidence – and scientists stress that more real-world data is needed to be sure – suggests that it is less dangerous than other strains. An early study from Imperial College in London suggests that, compared to the previously dominant Delta variant, those infected with Omicron are 15 per cent less likely to attend hospital, and 40 per cent less likely to be hospitalised for a night or more. John Bell, a leading scientists at Oxford University, has said Omicron is "not the same disease we were seeing a year ago". Clinicians first exposed to the variant in South Africa have also consistently stressed it is less severe.
What to make, therefore, of strict new measures being brought in by many countries? Implementing them, from the UAE to France, is still absolutely the best course.
This seeming contradiction is an illustration of what has made Covid-19 such an all-round devastating illness. For many, Omicron might feel like a bad cold; but unlike with a cold, sufferers and close contacts have to isolate for days at a time, at great cost to society and the economy. Indeed the burden has proved so great in the US that the Centres for Disease Control has said that people who test positive need to isolate for only five days if they do not show symptoms, half the previous period of 10 days. In a country that still has a significant proportion of the population unvaccinated – the best protection against Omicron is given by three doses – this is a bold move that reveals the potential devastation to the economy and healthcare that even a seemingly milder variant could still cause.
Unlike much of the world, the UAE has worked hard to achieve extremely high vaccination rates, a fact that can make it hopeful that Omicron, while increasing cases, should not lead to excessive deaths. But if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that caution remains the best option. Perhaps, epidemiologically, Omicron is a step on the road to being able to live with Covid-19 restriction-free. But it is only a step, and the UAE and much of the world is right to be treating it as such.