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Are we heading for an unprecedented disaster like the Irish Potato Famine?

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by Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

When the potato crop, the staple diet then in Ireland, began to totally fail with a fungal infestation that lead to the historic Irish famine (1845-1852), the Irish leaders in Dublin turned to Queen Victoria and the British Parliament for redress. However, the British government under which Ireland was then a colony, acted negatively repealing certain laws and tariffs that made food such as corn and bread prohibitively expensive. Tenant farmers were unable even to produce enough food for themselves, and hundreds of thousands died of starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition!

The exact role of the British government in the Potato Famine and its aftermath—whether it ignored the plight of Ireland’s poor out of malice, or if their collective inaction and inadequate response could be attributed to incompetence—is still being debated. However, even during the famine some food items were exported out of Ireland. Our situation looks very comparable to the Irish fiasco except that our leaders are not acting with malice but with foolish obstinacy, not analysing the issues at stake, not consulting experts in the subject and sticking coherently to their policy of organic farming with unattainable goals.

Our rice farmers may yet not be starving because they have at least the last Yala rice crop which has been reasonable despite the fertilizer and other agrochemical shortages. On the other hand, tea and vegetable farmers appear to be the most hit. Many tea smallholders complain that without adequate nitrogen fertilizer their crops have declined immensely and some are not even harvesting the meagre flush as it can hardly meet even the workers wages. The seriousness of the situation is further aggravated by our losing the markets which the industry claims can be substantial.

At the same time, for the general public, sky-rocketing prices of food and other essentials are unbearable. Our women won’t be able even to emulate what the French women did during the days of the French Revolution due to inflation, carrying the money in the shopping bags and bringinging back the purchases in their purses, because they have no money to carry.

It is regrettable that the President did not consult the agricultural experts in deciding to rush to convert the country entirely to organic from conventional farming within one season.He has not positively responded to the current fiasco of neither chemical nor organic fertilizer being available. His main consultants on matter appear to be a pediatrician who wants to go back to traditional rice varieties which yield less than half the new improved varieties and a professor of agriculture who identified sorghum as a rice variety, Swayanjatha wee’, with which, he claims, King Dutugamunu fed his ‘Dasa Maha Yodayas.’ There are many other ‘yes men’ behind him nodding their heads to every thing he says.

The President should be mindful that the world moved away from organic farming from about the 1850s to conventional farming because even in that era organic farming could not meet the food demand. The writer hopes that he would at least look at Table 1 here which shows how chemical fertilizers and new high yielding varieties pushed production from essentially organic farming and traditional rice to chemical farming and new varieties by three to four fold across many countries. Distinguished Professor Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba calculated that 40% of the global population in 1999 would not have lived if urea fertilizer had not been invented.

Table 1. Comparative Rice

Production (Million MT)

Country 1960 1999

China 48 170

India 46 112

Sri Lanka 1.1 3.4

The transition from traditional agriculture where fertilizer comprised essentially farmyard manure(FYM) and green manures, to conventional agriculture(CF), as we know it today, took place in the mid 19th century with two ground breaking inventions , the synthesis of soluble (super) phosphate(John Lawes,1814 to 1900) and the need for chemical nitrogenous fertilizer for crop growth (Justus von Liebig,1803-1873) by two great scientists. In 1909, another great German scientist, Fritz Haber (1868-1934) successfully synthesized ammonia by combining atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen which revolutionized the production of urea and other commercial nitrogenous fertilizers.

These inventions and the rapidly growing knowledge then in plant chemistry led to the substitution of natural dung with chemical fertilizer. The third important element, potassium, was provided largely by potash, a substance that had been known from antiquity. It has been said that without these inventions, the industrial countries of Western Europe could not have supported the dense population growth of the 19th century. It is the same reason that later led to the Green Revolution. This is ironically the fundamental question that we should ask: is there adequate organic matter and associated technologies to “go green” fully, as the President calls it, now, if it was not possible then with much lower populations but more farmlands. Sir John Russell (1942), the reputed British soil scientist, in an article titled British Agriculture states that: “it is difficult for us in this distance in time to recapture the feelings with which the farmers received the information that a powder made in a factory and applied out of a bag at the rate of only a few hundred weights per acre could possibly act as well as farmyard manure put on the land as dressings of tons to meet the nutrient demands of crops’. The question then is if organic matter was inadequate to meet the fertilizer requirements then, can it do so now on a global scale?

The main blame of the President and his cabinet colleagues is on health hazzards of agrochemicals. There is no argument that there are risks largely due to misuse of agrochemicals. One serious problem recently has been phosphate pollution of the Rajarata water bodies due to excessive application of phosphate fertilizers in the upcountry vegetable farms. On the other hand, no comprehensive studies reveal pollution of water or soil with heavy metals or pesticides, a subject much spoken about. Farmer training on judicious use can greatly reduce the risk of agrochemical misuse which sadly is not happening with the very ineffective extension services of the day. Strengthening this service is matter of highest priority.

On the other hand hardly any politician utters a word about ambient air pollution, which is a far more serious problem than agrochemical pollution. Records reveal that it caused 3.5 million premature, non-communicable disease- deaths, globally in 2017. These were from stroke, ischemic heart disease non chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and diabetes. Local health records reveal that our situation is no better.

The President and many of his cabinet colleagues including the Minister of Agriculture continue to lay the blame on agrochemicals for the kidney disease in the Rajarata and other non- communicable diseases, apparently the main reason for the President ‘going green.’ At some public meeting the President was heard to say that if he gives ‘chemical fertilizer with one hand he will have to give a kidney’ to the farmer with the other. He was prompted to say so by one of his key advisors in agriculture, a pediatrician turned agriculture expert. Sadly he has not sought advice from the health authorities as to the causation of the kidney disease. Numerous knowledgeable scientists and publications have revealed beyond doubt that hardwater and fluoride are the cause of the disease, and a recent comprehensive report by the Health Ministry reveals that there is no evidence to implicate agrochemicals in the causation of the disease.

In this crisis situation, of diminishing food production, the President does not appear to have sought the advise of real agriculture experts. In fact a letter delivered to him over a month ago with some 140 signatures of qualified agriculture researchers and academics seeking an opportunity to discuss the current agricultural calamity has fallen on deaf ears. Let alone the local expert knowledge, he should have sought evidence from what happens elsewhere in the world. Many countries are only gradually expanding their organic crop cover which, however, yet stands at 1.5 % of the total global croplands expanding annually at a meagre 2% per annum.Only 16 countries have exceeded 10 % of the crop cover in organic farming, and in nearly all them the major extents are in pasture fertilized with farmyard manure.

Policy blunders continue to be committed. To meet the rice fertilizer needs the government claims importing 2.1 million litres of nano fertilizer at a cost of USD 12 per litre. It appears to be nano urea although the Minister of Agriculture vehemently claims that it is not nano urea but ‘nanonitrogen’ to give it an organic stance. Urea is not allowed in organic farming. The authorities claim that the cost of a litre is USD 12, and it has 4% nitrogen, meaning there are 40 grams nitrogen/litre. As average rice crop of 5 tons/ha removes over 100kg nitrogen , meaning to meet the crop demand the farmers should spray 2,500 bottles of which the theoretical cost should be USD 30,000. However, the government makes the ridiculous claim that five litres/ha of nanonitrogen is adequate to meet the crop demand. God save the farmers!

The global synthetic urea prices have soared to about USD 750 per metric ton from about USD500 last November. Assuming that a farmer applies 100kg nitrogen/ha with urea (46% N) his cost should be Rs 32,608 without subsidy; and assuming he sells his crop of five tons at Rs 60/kg, his gross income should be Rs 300,000, and the cost of urea alone should be over 10.6% of the gross income. On the other hand, with the huge fertilizer subsidy in previous years the total fertilizer cost for rice farming was a mere 2 to 3% of the total cost of production or about 1.5% of the gross return. Incisive thinking on fertilizer subsidy is another matter that needs state attention.

The need for a national advisory body like the one in India set up by Nehru in 1963, which still continues with a name change made by Prime Minister Modi to give it more emphasis on technologies. Modi also recently reported repealing antiquated regulations that are adversely affecting small farmers. Moreover, whereas we have rushed to ban palm oil imports (now reversed) and oil palm cultivation, promoting coconut cultivation to meet the national oil yields despite it yielding only 20% of oil as oil palm, Modi has engaged in a policy of expanding oil palm cultivation extending it to irrigated lands and replacing some of the low-yielding arable oil crops. His target is to expand the oil palm cover from the current level of about 400,000 ha to a million by 2025. This writer repeats that our leaders should look at what happens elsewhere in the world apart from listening to proven experts in the respective fields.



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Features

A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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Rebirth in Buddhism

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By Dr. Justice Chandradasa Nanayakkara

The question of what happens after death naturally arises in the mind of thoughtful people, as we do not know what lies beyond death, because no one has ever returned to the living to recount his experiences life after death. Almost every religion across the world has a defined belief on what happens when a person dies, yet the question is still widely debated and discussed without any finality being reached on the issue. Most of the religious teachers from the earliest times, have been unanimous in affirming that life continues beyond the grave, but they differ widely on the question of what form and in what manner the survival takes place. Nevertheless, mankind continues to believe in some form of survival after death.

Regarding the question of survival after death, thinkers have generally followed one of two philosophical concepts. That is to say annihilationism and eternalism (in Buddhist, ucchedavada and sassatavada). First view is held by nihilists who claim that there is no life after death. They hold the view with the disintegration of the physical body the personality ceases to exist. This view accords with materialistic philosophy, which refuses to accept knowledge of mental conditionality. Those who hold the second view think that there is an abiding entity which exists forever and individual personality persists after death in a recognizable form as an entity called soul, spirit or self. This belief in some form or another is the basis of all theistic religions.

If you stick to the first view and deny that there is no continuity of life after death there would not be no moral law and vipaka (actions and results) operating in the universe enunciated by Lord Buddha and there would be no object in practicing self-restraint or endeavoring to free ourselves of the craving thanha which brings suffering in its wake. The cardinal teachings of the Buddha such as path to nibbana, Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path would be rendered nugatory and meaningless if death is followed by complete extinction. Similarly, those who believe eternalism which presupposes that individual personality persists after death in the form of soul or self as an enduring personality by means of transmigration is also rejected by Buddhism. This view runs counter to the very essence of Buddhism which denies existence of soul. This is the teaching of anatta doctrine, which distinguishes buddhism from other religions and marks it out from all other religious concepts.

In view of the virtual impossibility of establishing the truth of survival after death through empirical methods, question arises what is the attitude of science to this important and abstruse question which has baffled the minds of many people. Although, it is not possible to posit ‘rebirth’ as a scientific fact many men of science are of the opinion that mental, moral and physical inequalities can be accounted for on no other hypothesis than ‘rebirth’ hypothesis.

The idea of a cycle of birth and ‘rebirth’ is part of the teachings of the Lord Buddha. For many Buddhists death is not seen as an end, but rather as a continuation. Buddhists believe a person goes from life to life and see it another part of their long journey through samsara.

Buddhists do not regard ‘rebirth’ as a mere theory but as fact verifiable by evidence and it forms a fundamental tenet in Buddhism along with the concept of karma. Therefore, two principles-kamma and ‘rebirth’ are fundamental to understanding the teachings of Buddha. Kamma and ‘rebirth’ go in arm in arm. According to Buddhism there is no life after death or life before birth independent of kamma. Kamma is an immutable law of cause and effect, and we cannot avoid its consequences. Where there is kamma there must be ‘rebirth’. Most experiences in our present life are the results of our previous actions. Our actions of body, speech and mind (volitional activities) rebound back to us either in the present life or in some future life. It is the karma that conditions ‘rebirth’, past kamma conditions the present birth, the present kamma in combination with past kamma conditions the future. The present is the offspring of the past, and becomes in turn the parent of the future. For Buddhist death is not complete annihilation of a being though that particular life span ended, the force which hitherto actuated it is not destroyed. After death the life flux of man continues ad infinitum as long as there is ignorance and craving. Man will be able to put an end his repeated series of births by realizing nibbana, the complete annihilation of all forms of craving (Narada Thera).

The Buddhist doctrine of ‘rebirth’ should be differentiated from the theory of reincarnation, which implies transmigration of a soul and its invariable ‘rebirth’, as it is enunciated in Hinduism.

In his book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula Thera posed the question “if we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like self or soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a self or soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body? ‘When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life… physical and mental energies which constitute the so called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full: King Milinda questioning venerable Nagasena asked: “Venerable Nagasena, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating? Yes, O king, ‘rebirth’ takes place without anything transmigrating? “Give me illustration, venerable Sir. Suppose, O king, a man were to light a light from light pray, would the one light have passed over to the other light?” “Nay, indeed, Venerable Sir. “In exactly the same way, O king, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating.

In this connection, it should be mentioned the word ‘rebirth’ is not a satisfactory one, as it implies that there is something that after death takes on flesh again. It connotes transmigration of soul or other entity consequent to a death of a person. The Pali Word used in buddhism is arising or Phunabba.

As there is no soul or self in Buddhism, question arises if there is no soul or self what is there to be reborn. This has been most vexed question among many religious scholars. This has been a topic of debate for centuries. According to buddhism there is no enduring, substantial or independently existing entity that transmigrates from life to life instead there is simply an apparent continuity of momentary consciousness from one life time to the next that is imbued with impressions or traces (samskaras)of the actions one has committed in the past. For Buddhists everything is changing and nothing is permanent. So, when a person dies not he but his energies that shape him take a new form. New life is connected to previous life through kamma. There is rapid succession of thoughts throughout the life continuum.

The Buddha is our greatest authority on ‘rebirth. Therefore, for Buddhist no other evidence is necessary is prove ‘rebirth’.

On the very night of His enlightenment during the first watch, enlightenment, Buddhas mind travelled back through all of his unaccountable past lives. This was facilitated by the development of retro cognitive knowledge. Though his mind stretched back to countless eons he never saw a beginning to his past existence. He found no beginning and no end. He also saw all the beings in the universe being born, living dying and being reborn over and over again without end, all trapped in a web spun by their past actions. This process is the round of ‘rebirth’ known as samsara, which means wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose.

The Buddha before his enlightenment as bodhisattva was born in different forms of existence. As such Buddhist have a firm belief in many realms of existence, both above and below the human realm. Therefore, we can safely assume we all have lived through countless different lifetimes before being born in the world and our birth here as a human being is the result of predominantly good kamma we have committed in the past life. Those good kamma may have been done in many life times before, or more likely done in the previous life. Therefore, the quality of future births depends on the moral quality of our actions now.

In Dhammachackka Sutta too in his first discourse referring to second noble truth, Buddha declared this very craving is that leads to ‘rebirth’.

In ancient Greece philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras too taught the doctrine of ‘rebirth’ and Plato made it an important assumption in his philosophy, as pointed out by Ven Piyadassi Thera.

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A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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