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We Don’t Know Much About Omicron

Countries have been quick to curtail travel from southern Africa over fears of a new highly transmissible variant.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A COVID-19 testing center sign at Heathrow Airport
A COVID-19 testing center sign at Heathrow Airport in London on Nov. 28. Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: G-7 countries convene an emergency meeting on omicron variant, Iran nuclear negotiations resume in Vienna, Barbados bids farewell to the British monarchy, and the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Omicron Variant Prompts Travel Bans, Criticism in Africa 

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: G-7 countries convene an emergency meeting on omicron variant, Iran nuclear negotiations resume in Vienna, Barbados bids farewell to the British monarchy, and the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Omicron Variant Prompts Travel Bans, Criticism in Africa 

G-7 health ministers convene today for an emergency meeting on the omicron coronavirus variant as new cases emerge in more than a dozen countries.

Although its origins are unknown as yet, the variant was first discovered last week by South African scientists researching cases in Botswana.

How dangerous is it? With something so new, it’s hard to tell. South Africa’s COVID-19 infection rate has shown a steep increase from the low hundreds in early November to a seven-day average of over 4,000 cases today. Deaths, usually a lagging indicator, have yet to show a marked increase.

Angelique Coetzee, a South African physician who first raised the alarm over the new variant, has reported “very mild” symptoms among her patients now found to have been infected with omicron. Those symptoms range from extreme fatigue to body aches, and they were treated at home.

There are still reasons to be wary, however, since Coetzee’s patients tended to be young, and it’s not yet known how the variant will affect older populations.

Why omicron? The World Health Organization, which switched to Greek letters to categorize new variants to avoid stigmatizing the countries in which they were discovered, chose omicron to avoid a tricky linguistic and political conundrum: As the 13th named novel coronavirus variant—and the fifth variant of concern—it should strictly be nu. Next up is xi. Skipping both leads to omicron.

How well can it evade vaccines? While scientists are still working on a definitive answer, the number of mutations in the variant’s spike protein suggest current vaccines may be less effective. New treatment pills for COVID-19 symptoms should still remain potent, however, as they target the enzyme that allows the virus to reproduce.

More lockdowns? Right now, countries have mostly focused on curtailing travel from southern Africa, with Israel imposing a two-week ban on all foreign travelers. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken out against those moves, calling them counterproductive and not informed by science.

South Africa’s foreign ministry has called the travel bans “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”

African Union official Ayoade Alakija reserved stern words for rich countries, accusing them of enforcing a vaccine divide. “What is going on right now is inevitable, it’s a result of the world’s failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent, and speedy manner,” Alakija told the BBC. “It is as a result of hoarding by high-income countries of the world, and quite frankly it is unacceptable.”

While African countries still account for only 10 percent of vaccine recipients, South Africa currently has deferred new deliveries to get through its backlog of supplies, with vaccine hesitancy keeping its overall vaccination rate low, at roughly a quarter of its population.

The World This Week 

Tuesday, Nov. 30: A verdict is expected in the trial of deposed Myanmar democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She is charged with inciting dissent against the military.

India’s parliament convenes for its winter session.

NATO foreign ministers hold a summit in Riga, Latvia. 

Wednesday, Dec. 1: Indonesia assumes the presidency of the G-20, taking over from Italy.

Thursday, Dec. 2: OPEC+ oil ministers meet to discuss oil production levels.

Friday, Dec. 3: The deadline by which the U.S. Congress must pass a spending bill or a new continuing resolution to fund the government to avoid a shutdown.

Saturday, Dec. 4: Gambia holds its presidential election. 

Sunday, Dec. 5: Saudi Arabia hosts its first-ever Formula One Grand Prix in Jeddah.

What We’re Following Today

Iran talks resume. Negotiators from Russia, China, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the European Union will meet their Iranian counterparts in Vienna today to resume discussions over a return to the 2015 nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions imposed on Iran. U.S. representatives will attend the talks as indirect participants. The talks are the first since new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office and installed new negotiators, who are considered to be hard-liners compared to those who worked through the last six rounds.

Sweden’s next prime minister. Lawmakers in Sweden are set to hold a new vote—the second in less than a week—on whether to appoint Social Democratic leader Magdalena Andersson as prime minister. Andersson briefly became Sweden’s first woman to hold the post last Thursday, before resigning within hours after failing to secure support for her budget proposal from her coalition partner, the Green Party.

Honduras’s election. Xiomara Castro hopes to become Honduras’s first female president today as vote counting continues following Sunday’s presidential election. Preliminary results with 45 percent of polling stations reporting show Castro ahead of Nasry Asfura, the candidate of the ruling National Party. She has 53 percent of the votes counted, while Asfura has only 33 percent. If victorious, Castro is expected to reorient the country’s foreign policy toward China, ending its status as one of the few countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Keep an Eye On

The Republic of Barbados. Barbados will officially become a republic today in a ceremony in the capital, Bridgetown. The event will inaugurate current Governor General Sandra Mason as president, replacing Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state.

Afghanistan talks. Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi leads a Taliban delegation to Doha, Qatar, today for talks with European Union and U.S. officials. Muttaqi is set to sit down with U.S. Afghanistan representative Thomas West to discuss counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance, and the country’s economy, according to a State Department briefing.

Odds and Ends

Canada’s maple syrup cartel is planning to dip into its strategic reserves to boost supplies of the sugary condiment after a spike in sales, likely due to pandemic-induced home cooking. The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, a trade group responsible for 73 percent of global production, plans to release roughly 50 million pounds of syrup from its stockpile to cope with consumer demand, which rose 21 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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