What scientists do know is that the virus (Omicron) is much more likely to mutate in places where vaccination is low and transmission high.
“It has probably emerged in another country and has been detected in South Africa, which has very, very good genomic sequencing capacity and capability… it might well be a consequence of an outbreak, probably in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where there’s not a huge amount of genomic surveillance going on and vaccination rate is low,” Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told CNN in a phone interview.
Head said the emergence of new variants was “a natural consequence of being too slow to vaccinate the world.”
“We still have large unvaccinated populations, like we have across sub- Saharan Africa, and these are susceptible to big outbreaks,” he said.
New variants of the virus that have caused problems in the past, Head added, have all emerged from places that experienced big, uncontrolled outbreaks, such as when the Alpha variant was first detected in the UK last December, or the Delta variant that was first found in India in February.
The Omicron variant is already spreading across the world — as of Sunday, it has been detected in a number of countries including South Africa, Botswana, Australia, the UK, Germany, Italy and Belgium.
Many countries across the world have reacted to the news that South African scientists discovered the new variant by a wiftly shutting their borders to travelers coming from countries in the region, including South Africa,
Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
But scientists and public health experts and advocates have warned that the huge gap between vaccination rates in the developed and developing world is likely to blame.
Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, a health research charity, said the new variant shows why the world needs to ensure more equitable access to vaccines and other public health tools.
“New variants are a reminder, if we needed it, that the pandemic is far from over,” he said on Twitter. “Inequity is what will extend the pandemic.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 7.5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Across the eight countries most affected by the travel bans related to the Omicron variant, the proportion of populations that have had at least one vaccine dose ranges from 5.6% in Malawi to 37% in Botswana.
Meanwhile, 63.9% of people in high-income countries have received at least one shot, according to WHO. In both the European Union and the United States, around 70% of people have received at least one shot, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.