The first two confirmed cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in Latin America were detected in two travellers returning to Brazil from South Africa last week. As of yesterday, there were six confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in Brazil, leading Rio de Janeiro and twenty other state capitals to cancel New Year celebrations.
The new variant, potentially more virulent than the currently dominant Delta variant, has governments around the world concerned and planning for the worst. A Brazilian epidemiologist agreed with the cautious approach until more was known about Omicron, “Early reports suggest Omicron is more transmissible than Delta but we do not know how harmful it is or how effective the vaccines will be against it, yet. It is too early to draw firm conclusions, so the best approach is the cautious one.”
“It is too early to draw firm conclusions [about the Omicron variant], so the best approach is the cautious one.”
The Pan American Health Organisation (“PAHO”) has called on governments to speed up the rollout of the vaccines as the new variant will likely increase its circulation through the whole continent. PAHO officials emphasised the need to maintain public health measures like wearing masks and stepping up surveillance measures.
Brazil and Ecuador have already restricted flights from Africa. However, virologists warn about the limited impact of these restrictions and argue that countries in Latin America should strengthen their genomics surveillance measures to monitor the advance and potential mutations of the virus to catch them at the earliest possible stage.
A public health official in Mexico agreed, “South African authorities and public health officials should be praised for identifying Omicron and telling the world about it. Latin American countries could learn from their example.” In this context Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico have solid genomic sequencing research networks while Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela are lagging behind and could pose a global risk for the escape of new COVID-19 mutations.
In addition to health risks, the United Nations Development Programme warned about the economic vulnerability of households in the region. Almost 25% of the working population in Latin America lost their jobs during the pandemic, 50% of households have seen their income levels fall and 24% of the population experienced food insecurity since the outbreak of the pandemic. “Large parts of Latin America are really suffering economically,” explained an economist in Chile, “lockdowns are just not feasible anymore, people need to work. The best news would be if Omicron spreads rapidly and is not lethal, replacing Delta with something less deadly.”
“Large parts of Latin America are really suffering economically, lockdowns are just not feasible anymore, people need to work.”
The World Bank claimed that the COVID-19 crisis will have a long-term impact on Latin America which could see its projected GDP growth threatened by the spread of the new variant. New lockdowns or economic restrictions could seriously hinder trade, services and the tourism industries and ultimately lead to poorer public health services and more deaths.