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How big a threat is Omicron?
IF THERE is one lesson the covid-19 pandemic has taught the world, it is that acting early pays off. Wait a week for better data on which to base a decision and you can find yourself down a path of no return, with cases rising steeply. So when news emerged on November 25th in South Africa of a worrying new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, many countries in Europe and elsewhere banned travel from countries in southern Africa within a day. On November 26th the World Health Organisation named the variant Omicron, a Greek-alphabet designation which, as a rule, it reserves only for “variants of concern”.
The concerns with Omicron are indeed many. The biggest is that it may have the ability to spread more easily than Delta, the variant that dominates cases of covid around the world today. If so, Omicron could supplant Delta within months. In that case, Omicron would cause bigger outbreaks that flare up faster than Delta and are harder to stop. Another worry is that today’s vaccines and drugs against covid may be less potent against Omicron and may therefore need to be redesigned.
At the moment, these are only fears based on hints drawn from early data on Omicron emerging from South Africa. Whether these fears will come to pass is far from certain. It will take weeks or even months before there is solid evidence from laboratory and other studies on how much of a threat Omicron really poses. In the meantime, many countries are trying to stop the new variant from arriving on their shores inside travelers—and rightly so. They are buying time to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.
The first signs that a new variant may be spreading emerged in South Africa earlier this week, when covid infections increased suddenly and sharply, from fewer than 300 cases on November 16th to more than 1,200 on November 25th. The vast majority of these infections were in one province, Gauteng, which has Johannesburg as its capital.
At first, it seemed as if the infections were linked to one big super spreading event, such as a student party. That would be the sort of outbreak in which a new variant erupts briefly and then dies away. But new cases in Gauteng instead became more dispersed over time. That prompted South African scientists to look at the genomic sequence of viral samples, which is how they spotted the new variant.
Further analysis confirmed that the new variant was spreading fast in many other provinces in South Africa, even though the numbers were still small. This pattern suggests that Omicron may be outcompeting Delta. The nature of Omicron’s mutations adds backing for this hypothesis. It has about 50 of them, an exceptionally large number. Most worrying is ten found in the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the virus’s spike protein. The RBD is the part of the virus that attaches to human cells, enabling the virus to enter and infect them. By comparison, the Beta variant has three changes to the RBD and Delta only two.
With mutations, quantity is not necessarily quality. But several of those in Omicron has been found in studies of other variants to make the virus more infectious. Some of them make it easier for SARS-CoV-2 to evade the body’s innate immune response (the immune system’s first reaction), others weaken its antibody response (a defense mechanism built as a result of prior infection or vaccination). Various combinations of Omicron’s mutations are present in all of the variants of concern to have emerged so far.
If the mutations in Omicron turn out to make covid vaccines less potent, the jabs may have to be tweaked. On November 26th Pfizer and BioNTech, makers of the covid jab that is most widely used in Western countries said that they would be able to rework their mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship the first batches within 100 days. The mutations in Omicron do not appear to be a threat to the efficacy of antiviral medicines for covid, but they could defeat some antibody therapies, which are given to people unable to mount an immune response.
Even if Omicron comes to dominate in South Africa, it is unclear that it will displace Delta in other parts of the world. South Africa had a wave of the Beta variant that did not become established elsewhere. Likewise, Alpha, which swept across Europe, never became established in South Africa. These patterns may have to do with variations in demography and with common infections that interact with SARS-CoV-2 in poorly understood ways.
All in all, lots about Omicron remains to be discovered. What is clear, however, is that the world is better placed to resist it than when Delta emerged in India at the end of last year. By the time Delta had been identified as a variant of concern, it had already spread to many parts of the world, eventually seeding wave after wave of the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether Omicron poses a global threat on such a scale…
Responding to a host of economic and cultural transformations in academic and research libraries today, Springer Nature undertook a study in 2018 into the current role of the library and librarians within their institutions. The aim was to better understand the needs and obstacles that librarians face, and how scholarly publishers and libraries can work together. We asked librarians in a variety of positions around the world about how their library operates today and the future of scholarly communications and received 770 responses from nearly 60 countries, which we followed up with 20 one-to-one interviews. Based upon this original survey and interview data, the findings in this study reflect diverse perspectives from academic and research libraries worldwide…
Research collaborations offer solutions to many unanswered questions in academia. Other than furthering science, collaborations are highly desirable for researchers in order for them to develop a healthy and productive collaborative network, share new research ideas and develop a diverse set of skills, all resulting in an increase in publication output. Yet, given the multiple parties, goals, and expectations, collaborative projects are more susceptible to failure when compared to individual undertakings…
Institutional Repository (IR) managers often find themselves providing copyright guidance to faculty who wish to self-archive their published scholarship or to students depositing theses and dissertations. As IR managers may not be copyright experts themselves, making determinations and checking rights can be difficult and time-consuming. This article is intended as a practical guide to describe common types of material that can be placed in an IR as well as potential copyright issues and other considerations for each type. Material types covered include book chapters, journal articles, conference proceedings, student papers, electronic theses and dissertations, research data sets, historical and archival materials, and oral histories. Underlying issues such as copyright ownership, work made for hire, and the legal definition of publication are also discussed. For easier reference, the appendix contains a chart with brief descriptions of issues and resources…
How are librarians around the world innovating to improve user experience? How can librarians use space design to influence patron behavior? This curated collection of articles and book chapters from Taylor & Francis brings together perspectives from global librarians on important topics and challenges facing librarians today.
Featuring the below book chapters and journal articles:
- Jordanian Public Libraries in Relation to Achieving SDGs: Shoman Library in Action by Dina Tbaishat (in ‘Public Library Quarterly’)
- UX and a small academic library by Margaret Westbury (in ‘User Experience in Libraries: Applying Ethnography and Human-Centred Design’)
- Removing the invisibility cloak: Using space design to influence patron behavior and increase service desk usage by Stephanie Pierce and Amanda Schilling (in ‘Journal of Access Services’)
- Return on Investment (ROI) from a Business School Library: An Indian Perspective by Dr H. Anil Kumar (in ‘Business School Libraries in the 21st Century’)
- Managing the Personnel in University Libraries: A Developing Country Perspective by Nosheen Fatima Warraich and Kanwal Ameen (in ‘International Information & Library Review’)
- Finding Common Ground: An Analysis of Librarians’ Expressed Attitudes Towards Faculty by Lisa M. Given and Heidi Julien (in ‘Relationships Between Teaching Faculty and