By Orville Williams
The Ministry of Health has confirmed that the Omicron Covid-19 variant has officially been detected in the twin island nation, while Covid infections continue to escalate this week.
In a media statement published yesterday, the ministry said the variant was identified in a batch of samples sent to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) for testing last month.
With the discovery, Antigua and Barbuda joins Barbados, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, among other countries that have also confirmed the variant’s presence.
Based on the rapid spread of Omicron across the world, many believed it was only a matter of time before it touched down in the country and the Health Ministry confirmed in the statement that it too had previously suspected its presence.
It means all five of the World Health Organization (WHO)-designated variants of concern – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Omicron – have now been found in Antigua and Barbuda, and this latest variant could not come at a worse time.
Just hours prior to confirming the presence of Omicron, the Health Ministry reported that 229 new Covid infections were recorded over the period January 1 to January 4.
That followed a similar report on Tuesday, when 203 new infections were confirmed to have been detected over the period December 27 to December 31 last year.
This shot the number of active cases up from just 27 in the middle of December, to a whopping 499 up to last night.
Health officials had been warning of a likely spike in infections following the festive season, based on last year’s experience when returning nationals and visitors flocked to the country, resulting in hundreds of persons contracting the virus early in 2021.
The major difference in this case is that Covid vaccines are widely available and nearly 60,000 persons have already been fully vaccinated.
According to physician Dr Dwayne Thwaites, the fact that so many people are already inoculated, coupled with the low number of hospitalisations reportedly being caused by the Omicron variant globally, means the variant’s presence shouldn’t cause more alarm than the Delta, for example.
“When viruses variate, we have what we call nonsense variation and that is where the viruses change, but [the change] doesn’t affect [persons afflicted] in any way.
“Here, we have a change, where the variant is more contagious and spreads easier, but it is not as dangerous, it doesn’t destroy [organs] like we used to see with the Delta variant.
“Because of what we’re seeing now in Antigua and Barbuda, with the number of [Covid] cases, it seems like people are getting some kind of immunity. People who are vaccinated are getting extra immunity, because they’re still picking up the disease and they’re not getting as sickly,” Dr Thwaites told Observer.
The urologist warned though, that residents should still get vaccinated as a matter of priority in order to reduce the likelihood of more variants being formed.
“If you’re unvaccinated and the virus gets to you, it keeps multiplying and the more it multiplies, the greater the chance that it will variate again,” Dr Thwaites said.
To date, the Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa, has been detected in more than 120 countries.