Four reasons to celebrate how scientists discovered Omicron

The Omicron variant has swept across the world, bringing with it a new wave of uncertainty about the future of the Covid-19 pandemic. One thing we can be certain of, however, is the world-leading science that helped discover it.

Here are four reasons to celebrate the science (and scientists) that alerted the world to Omicron.

1. Speed

They gave the rest of the world time to prepare

In a matter of weeks, world-leading scientists across southern Africa identified, tested and confirmed that they had found a new Covid-19 variant.

The swift and transparent work of these scientists provided the rest of the world with time to prepare for the oncoming surge of new cases. From renewed social distancing efforts to bolstered vaccination programmes, governments were able to respond in a matter of days – not months – to try to slow transmission.

“South Africa needs to be praised and acknowledged for the quality and speed of the public health and genomic science in South Africa, sharing the data immediately, supporting the region and the world.”

2. Transparency

Genomic surveillance is crucial to ending Covid-19

As long as the virus continues to circulate, new variants will emerge.

With new variants come new and often unknown risks. Genomic surveillance is the best tool we have to discover and track these variants.

By analysing lots of virus samples, scientists all over the world can help us understand what is happening to the virus.

This is how scientists discovered Omicron and its concerning mutations.

They knew that it was crucial to report their findings to the world, and by sharing their data quickly at a national and international level they helped governments make informed public health decisions to try and slow the variant’s spread.

3. Expertise

Surveillance in countries around the world is our first line of defence

Scientists were able to identify and share information about Omicron quickly because of the robust and expert genomic surveillance networks that exist in South Africa – but these tools are not available everywhere.

Lack of funding, support and research expertise prevents many countries from collecting or processing the data required for genomic surveillance. This means that the virus can transmit and mutate unchecked through large portions of the population.

To be able to prevent and control outbreaks before they spread, we need to know where they are as soon as possible. This requires a global and coordinated genomic surveillance system.

4. Collaboration

It showed governments that we need a global pandemic radar

The fast and transparent discovery of the Omicron variant makes a strong case for a global network of real-time surveillance. If scientists can’t see what’s happening in many parts of the world, they can’t work on creating the tools needed to combat new diseases or variants. 

“Sharing the data is fundamental for managing the pandemic. We can only control the pandemic if it’s a global effort because if a variant of concern appears in one part of the world, it affects the whole world.”

Global leaders must support and join the World Health Organization’s effort to build this global network.

From South Africa to Bangladesh to Venezuela, N.S.M. Help is working with researchers to increase genomic surveillance capacity all over the world.

Our goal is to build on existing resources and coordinate a global network of expertise to help bring Covid-19 under control and prevent future epidemics.