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Governments Prepare for Omicron's Global Spread

December 3, 2021

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What's happening?

The new COVID-19 variant Omicron is spreading and has a high global risk, according to the World Health Organization.

Omicron was first reported in South Africa and has since surfaced in a number of other countries. On Wednesday, the first Omicron case in the United States was identified in California.

Factors determining the variant’s risk—like transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, and illness severity—are still under investigation, and likely will be for weeks. But what do scientists know so far?

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According to the WHO, “Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic.” Spike proteins enable the virus to enter the human body by binding to cells. Antibodies produced by vaccines or previous infections target spike proteins, so a high number of mutations could impact transmissibility and vaccine effectiveness. According to Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor at Warwick Medical School, “This new variant... is very worrying. [It] carries some changes we’ve seen previously in other variants but never altogether in one virus. It also has novel mutations that we’ve not seen before.”

What's the impact?

Because Omicron research is still in the early stages, it’s hard to say how the variant will impact the pandemic in terms of healthcare systems and case spikes. 

However, some governments are implementing tighter travel restrictions until more information is available. According to the WHO, new travel restrictions are impacting laboratory sample sharing, which is delaying global cooperation to address the variant. EU leaders are also considering mandatory vaccinations to curb the spread.

These events may have a number of impacts. Tighter travel restrictions could spark a backlash from countries or individuals affected by supply chain disruptions and other economic consequences. New gathering restrictions and vaccine mandates could also provoke widespread social unrest and protests. There’s also the possibility that Omicron will be leveraged as a topic for disinformation.

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The Council on Foreign Relations ranks territorial disputes in the South China Sea as having a critical impact on US interests. A conflict in the region is also likely to impact global trade routes and supply chains relying on goods produced in the area. According to the Council, “[t]he failure of Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders to resolve the disputes by diplomatic means could also undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and encourage destabilizing arms buildups.”

How can OSINT help?

Public and private sector organizations have used open-source intelligence (OSINT) throughout the pandemic to assess its spread and impact. As the Omicron variant spreads, public online data sources like social media can provide valuable insights, including:

  • Contact tracing information
  • Real-time information for supply chain disruptions and travel risks 
  • Early warning indicators for physical threats, like organized demonstrations, resulting from new mandates and restrictions
  • Emerging disinformation or media manipulation related to the variant

Alongside other information sources, this data improves visibility into public health and safety risks. This helps governments and organizations make more timely, informed decisions to protect their people and assets during a healthcare crisis.

Specialized OSINT tools are required to make this kind of information quickly and easily available. Book some time with our team to learn more about OSINT software and crisis response.