Omicron COVID Update: Cases in Canada, Immune Escape from Antibodies, Japan's Maximalist Approach and Compensation for South Africa

A roundup of the latest news about the omicron coronavirus.

Detected in Canada

Two COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant have been detected in Ontario, Canadian health officials announced Sunday, according to the Washington Post.

Unusually high number of hospitalizations in South Africa

Whether the omicron variant is going to cause more serious disease is unclear, but COVID-19 patterns in South Africa are worrisome. The emergence of the variant has led to a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the country’s Gauteng province—home to the capital city of Pretoria and Johannesburg. There were 49 hospitalizations during the two weeks that ended on Nov.27, compared with 18 in the two weeks prior, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The first known South African case of omicron was detected on Nov.11, the newspaper reported. Since, the daily number of cases nationwide has increased tenfold, from 300 to more than 3,000, the Journal reported.

“High likelihood” of escape from antibodies, says WHO

In a technical brief to its member states, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the multiple mutations of the coronavirus spike protein mean there’s a “high likelihood” that the omicron variant will escape antibody-mediated defenses against infection. However, the international health organization also said in the Nov. 28 document that it was more difficult to predict whether the virus might slip by the defenses of the other arm of the immune system, called cell-mediated immunity. The WHO technical brief also gave some reassurance that despite the uncertainties about omicron “is it reasonable to assume that currently available vaccines off some protection against severe disease.”

Uh-oh. Omicron may also escape cell-mediated immunity

As the WHO technical note makes clear, hopes that omicron can be controlled rest, in part, on the power of cell-medicated immunity, which includes T cells. A news story in Nature that was originally posted on Nov. 25 and then updated on Nov. 27 says, though, that hints from computer modeling of omicron by South African researchers suggest the variant may (there are more tests to be done) also maneuver around the cell-mediated arm of the immune response.

Japan’s traveler ban goes further

President Joe Biden announced on Friday that starting today most travelers from South Africa and seven other countries would not be allowed to enter the U.S. Many other countries have also moved quickly to impose travel bans, although there is debate about how effective they are in stopping the spread of what seems to be a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus. Japan has gone further and closed off travel from everywhere, the New York Times reported this morning. “It is a familiar tactic for Japan,” the newspaper reported. “The country has barred tourists since early in the pandemic, even as most of the rest of the world started to travel again.”

Compensation for South Africa, other countries?

The travel bans affecting South Africa and other countries in southern Africa could cause economic and other sorts of hardships. An editorial in the Observer, a British news publication, says “global compensation” for South Africa for being forthright about omicron might prevent other countries from keeping variant knowledge secret.