OMICRON VARIANT

Why Kenyans must take Omicron seriously - Dr Ayah

Dr Ayah explained that a variant can still be dangerous in an unvaccinated population even if it is less severe.

In Summary

•Dr Ayah is a member of the taskforce on Covid-19 vaccine deployment.

•World Health Organisation says it will take at least two weeks to understand how dangerous Omicron is.

Dr Richard Ayah of the University of Nairobi.
Dr Richard Ayah of the University of Nairobi.
Image: COURTESY

Experts have said Kenyans must still take caution, even though the new Omicron variant is said to be less severe than initially thought.

Veteran public health expert Dr Richard Ayah said the ongoing mutations show there are still a lot of unknowns about Covid-19.

He said although Omicron is less severe than initially feared, its greater transmissibility is of concern.

“So far Omicron has greater transmissibility than Delta. There are still many people who are vulnerable because not so many people are vaccinated here,” he said.

He explained that a variant can still be dangerous in an unvaccinated population even if it is less severe.

“Delta wasn’t different from Alpha in severity but had increased transmissibility. The issue was that more people were getting infected, which means if more vulnerable people get sick, then more people die,” he said.

Dr Ayah is a member of the taskforce on Covid-19 vaccine deployment, a don at the University of Nairobi and head of the African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence.

He urged Kenyans to continue masking, sanitising and avoid crowding.

He supported the government’s decision to keep Kenyan borders open, saying closure would not stop the spread.

“Our borders are too porous so closing we are just punishing people,” he told The Star.

Dr Duncan Nyukuri, an infectious disease physician at Kenyatta National Hospital, told journalists there was no need for panic as Omicron is quite mild.

“Studies in South Africa and Israel show it does not cause severe  illness and does not induce mortality,” he said at an online meeting organised by the Media Council of Kenya.

World Health Organisation says it will take at least two weeks to understand how dangerous Omicron is.

Scientists said they need two weeks to understand Omicron because this is the time it takes for someone to become seriously unwell after contracting Covid-19.

They also need a similar amount of time to work out whether its mutations could make it more infectious than Delta and resistant to vaccines.

WHO said the main uncertainties about Omicron are: how transmissible the variant is and whether any increases are  related to immune escape, increased transmissibility, or both.

In the next two weeks, scientists will probe how well vaccines protect against infection, transmission, clinical disease of different degrees of severity and death.

They will also test if Omicron presents with a different severity profile.

WHO opposed blanket travel bans, saying countries should continue to apply an evidence-informed and risk-based approach when implementing travel measures.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the South African doctor who was one of the first to spot Omicron said the symptoms are mild and can be treated at home.

"Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms. We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home," she said.

The director of South Africa's communicable disease institute said on Tuesday the Omicron variant detected in southern Africa could be the most likely candidate to displace the highly contagious Delta variant.

The discovery of Omicron has caused global alarm, with countries limiting travel from southern Africa for fear it could spread quickly even in vaccinated populations and the WHO saying it carries a high risk of infection surges.

"We thought what will outcompete Delta? That has always been the question, in terms of transmissibility at least, ... perhaps this particular variant is the variant," Adrian Puren, acting executive director of South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), told Reuters in an interview.

If Omicron proves even more transmissible than the Delta variant, it could lead to a sharp spike in infections that could put pressure on hospitals.

Meanwhile, Nigeria on Wednesday confirmed its first cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in air passenger arrivals, but amended an earlier statement to say the travellers had arrived in Nigeria only over the past week.

Initially, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said that retrospective sequencing of previously confirmed Covid cases among travellers to Nigeria had identified the Omicron variant among a sample collected in October. An amended statement from the NCDC did not mention the October sample and a spokesman said that sample contained the Delta variant, not Omicron.