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The Inside Story-Omicron Outlook-TRANSCRIPT

TRANSCRIPT

The Inside Story: Omicron’s Ominous Outlook

Episode 17 – December 9, 2021

Show Opening Graphic:

Voice of CAROLYN PRESUTTI, VOA Correspondent:

Travel restrictions are back as OMICRON is the latest variant testing the world’s defenses against the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to the President:

We needed to buy some time to be able to prepare, understand what’s going on. What is the nature of this infection.

CAROLYN PRESUTTI:

As Omicron spreads, find out how to protect you and your family.

And go inside the effectiveness of vaccines on The Inside Story: Omicron’s Ominous Outlook.

The Inside Story:

CAROLYN PRESUTTI:

Hi, I’m Carolyn Presutti reporting from Washington.

As most of the northern hemisphere heads inside for the winter months, a new coronavirus variant is threatening to extend a pandemic that is nearing the two-year mark.

First identified three weeks ago by scientists in South Africa, the World Health Organization named the variant Omicron —continuing through the Greek alphabet to identify the variants of the virus. More on that a bit later in the show.

But this variant is now showing up all over the world, including the United States.

As public health officials gather data about Omicron’s impact and transmission, travel restrictions and testing requirements are being re-introduced. All, just in time for another holiday travel season.

Let’s go inside the US response with VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara.

PATSY WIDAKUSWARA, VOA White House Bureau Chief:

Planning to visit the United States? Be prepared to follow more stringent COVID-19 protocols.

In addition to being fully vaccinated, starting next week inbound travelers, regardless of nationality, must show a negative test within one day of departure, instead of three days under the previous rule.

U.S. President Joe Biden:

This tighter testing timetable provides an additional degree of protection as scientists continue to study the omicron variant. And we are extending the requirement to wear masks for travel on aircraft, trains, public transportation through the winter months.

PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:

President Joe Biden announced the measures Thursday, together with plans to increase vaccine and booster outreach for seniors and children and making COVID tests free and more widely available – a multipronged strategy to deal with the new omicron variant and avoid lockdowns.

An individual who traveled from South Africa tested positive in California on Wednesday; the first omicron case detected in the U.S. The Biden administration has restricted travel from nine African countries including South Africa, where the variant was first detected.

In the next 100 days, the U.S. will also send an additional 200 million doses of COVID vaccine abroad.

U.S. President Joe Biden:

I’ll always make sure that our people are protected first. But vaccinating the world is not just a moral tool, a moral obligation that we have, in my view – it’s how we protect Americans as we’re seeing with this new variant.

PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:

Doses will also be sent to conflict zones and other humanitarian settings such as refugee camps, part of a deal brokered by the administration between Johnson and Johnson and the international vaccine sharing mechanism COVAX, to immunize people not reached by government programs.

Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary:

We work through trusted global health partners like the United Nations, other NGOs that are trusted who can get humanitarian assistance and aid, including vaccine doses into communities.

PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:

A recent Duke University analysis said that to reach the U.N.’s year-end goal of vaccinating at least 40 percent of the world’s population, low and lower middle-income countries need an additional 650 million doses beyond what they are scheduled to receive from COVAX.

Krishna Udayakumar, Duke Global Health Innovation Center:

That might seem like a lot, but we have also projected that high income countries – so members of the G-7 and the European Union – will likely have more than 800 million excess doses available that they can reallocate after taking care of domestic needs, after taking care of boosters.

PATSY WIDAKUSWARA:

While equitable distribution of doses remains an issue, in many parts of the world the bigger problem may be skepticism that COVID vaccines are safe and effective. The Biden administration says it is also helping other countries overcome vaccine hesitancy in their population. Patsy Widakuswara, VOA News, at the White House.

CAROLYN PRESUTTI:

Global travel being the way it is, scientists will always be several days behind a new variant’s spread.

As of our taping, more than 30 countries have started travel restrictions since the discovery of Omicron.

And more than 30 countries have reported COVID cases of the Omicron variant.

Which raises the question: How effective ARE travel bans and restrictions?

Well VOA’s Saqeb Ul Islam goes INSIDE — traveling through COVID.

SAQIB UL ISLAM, VOA Reporter:

American Portia Steele with halfway to Kruger National Park outside Johannesburg when she heard about new U.S. travel restrictions targeting South Africa, where the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was first detected.

Portia Steele, American Traveler:

I was getting text messages from my friends and family about how they were restricting travel in the UK, expecting maybe that they would restrict travel back to the US.

SAQIB UL ISLAM:

Steele shortened her first ever trip to South Africa from ten to only two days and booked four different flights back to U.S. before the restrictions took hold.

Portia Steele – American Traveler:

There were a lot of U.S. citizens tearful at the United counter, at the Delta counter, at the KLM counter, trying to figure out ways to get home.

SAQIB UL ISLAM:

Steele was required to have a vaccination card, a negative COVID test, and a negative rapid test at the airport to board a flight from Johannesburg. In the U.S., she was greeted by officials with the Centers for Disease Control, given a self-testing kit, and then went into self-quarantine.

Portia Steele , American Traveler:

Traveling during the COVID era is knowing that things can change at any given moment and that people have to be malleable, So I just caution to anybody just be flexible because you never know what’s going to happen if you’re abroad.

SAQIB UL ISLAM:

But nearly two years into the pandemic, some are questioning it the sudden travel restrictions are effective.

Dr. Patrick Jackson, Infectious Disease Researcher:

I think the travel restrictions really are not helping us at all and are probably counterproductive.

SAQIB UL ISLAM:

Dr. Patrick Jackson is an infectious disease researcher at University of Virginia.

He says it’s almost certain the world will see more coronavirus variants in areas with low vaccination rates, like South Africa. He’s calling on countries to focus more on getting people vaccinated than on restricting travel.

Dr. Patrick Jackson, Infectious Disease Researcher:

One of the major failures of our pandemic policy so far has been not giving vaccines to the developing world and ensuring that the global population can get vaccinated.

SAQIB UL ISLAM:

Dr. Anthony Fauci is the country’s leading infectious disease expert and the president’s chief medical adviser. After the first U.S. Omicron case was detected days ago, Fauci renewed calls for people to get vaccinated and defended the new White House travel restrictions.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to the President:

No one feels, I certainly don’t think, a travel ban is going to prevent people who are infected from coming to the United States. But we needed to buy some time to be able to prepare, understand what’s going on. What is the nature of this infection, what is the nature of transmissibility?

SAQIB UL ISLAM:

More than thirty countries have closed their borders and more have imposed stricter measures in response to Omicron. As researchers try to learn more about this latest variant, officials say it’s imperative that more people around the world get vaccinated.

Saqib Ul Islam, VOA News, Washington.

CAROLYN PRESUTTI:

More than 5 million people worldwide have died from COVID-19 —–FIVE million — and the number keeps rising.

Experts agree: the vaccines represent your best defense against this virus.

But if you are confused about the science of vaccines – the steps and methods involved in producing them – you are not alone.

In fact, scientists often manipulate one virus to protect another when making a vaccine.

But don’t worry — VOA’s Carol Pearson can explain. She shows us how one approach in making a vaccine has been effective against polio, measles, Ebola and a host of other viruses.

CAROL PEARSON, VOA Correspondent:

People can get COVD-19 even though they have been fully vaccinated, but that does not mean the vaccine has failed.

Those who are fully vaccinated against this virus are, so far, much less likely to end up in a hospital or on a ventilator.

Dr. Andrea Cox, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:

The goal of vaccination is to reduce the severity of disease in almost all vaccines in use, and not to prevent infection entirely.

CAROL PEARSON:

The oldest method to make a vaccine uses either a live virus that is too weak to reproduce — scientists call it a live attenuated virus — or a dead virus that, because it is dead, can’t reproduce, but can still cause an immune response.

Polio vaccines have used both dead and weakened live polioviruses as vectors with great success.

Many countries are now polio-free. In 2021, only two children in the entire world contracted the wild polio virus.

Three COVID-19 vaccines use weakened adenoviruses — benign viruses that cause colds — as their vectors. Vectors are simply delivery systems used to introduce a more dangerous virus, either a weakened live virus or a dead one.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine uses a weakened chimpanzee adenovirus that does not infect humans. Sputnik V and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines use weakened human adenoviruses.

With all three vaccines, scientists remove a gene from the coronavirus’ spike protein and put it into the adenoviruses.

Once injected, the viruses enter the cells and start to produce the spike protein. Then, the body mounts an attack. Remember, the spike protein is only a part of the coronavirus and doesn’t cause COVID-19. So, there’s no danger of getting the illness from the vaccine.

Dr. Andrea Cox, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:

You don’t just mount an immune response to the adenovirus, but you also mount an immune response to the protein that it encodes, the spike protein that is part of the virus causing COVID.

CAROL PEARSON:

The World Health Organization has authorized use of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines but not Sputnik V. The WHO says it needs more data from the Sputnik trials.

Cox says of the three vaccines that use an adenovirus, scientists favor the AstraZeneca and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Dr. Andrea Cox, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:

We know the most about the AstraZeneca and the Johnson and Johnson vaccines because they have been given to tens of millions, if not 100 million people worldwide. So, we know the most about their side-effect profiles and their immune responses. We have far less data on the Sputnik vaccine just because it has been used far less frequently and there are simply fewer international studies that have assessed it.

CAROL PEARSON:

While some people choose not to get a vaccine, others are willing to travel long distances to get one. Hondurans are willing to cross a river to get the vaccine in neighboring Nicaragua.

The pandemic is far from over. Some scientists expect COVID to be with us for 3 to 4 years.

And even with the best scientists in the world working on vaccines and treatments, doctors are concerned that as the virus continues to infect unvaccinated people and mutate, at some point, the vaccines we have now won’t be able to offer full protection against COVID-19. Carol Pearson, VOA News.

Voice of Unidentified Narrator:

Early in the pandemic, herd immunity was often referred to as the long-term goal in the fight against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Epidemiologists refer to herd immunity as the tipping point, when enough people are protected from the virus that the community can return to routine life. But variants of the virus and low vaccination rates have prolonged that goal.

Herd immunity is when a significant portion of a community is immune to an infectious disease, making it harder for the disease to spread.

Herd immunity offers the entire community protection and can be achieved either through recovery from a previous infection or through vaccination.

Once people gain protection from an infectious disease such as COVID-19, it makes it more difficult for the disease to spread within the community, even to those unable to get vaccinated due to serious allergic reactions to the vaccines.

Public health officials say it is unknown how long herd immunity may last.

It is currently unknown how many people need to be vaccinated for COVID-19 to gain herd immunity, which is complicated by individual vaccine hesitancy, and uneven rollout and access to the vaccines.

CAROLYN PRESUTTI:

While doctors are working to learn more about the Omicron variant’s transmissibility, there is still much that is unknown.

Dr. Neil Vora is a Pandemic Prevention Fellow at Conservation International.

Since the discovery of the coronavirus in early 20-20, Dr. Vora has helped develop and lead New York City’s COVID-19 contact tracing program.

In his own words, he takes us inside — and tells us what we know and what we yet don’t yet know about the Omicron variant — and how we can protect ourselves.

Dr. Neil Vora, Conservation International, Columbia University:

There’s a lot of questions around omicron in terms of how transmissible is

it, how dangerous is it. And these are questions that scientists are very actively trying

to answer right now because of the very important public health implications that Omicron

has.

My name is Neil Vlora. I’m a physician with Conservation International. I worked on

viruses from Ebola to Zika. And most recently my last assignment with CDC was to lead New

York City’s covid contact tracing program. Currently I now work for Conservation International,

where I focus on addressing the upstream drivers that lead viruses to jump from animals into

people.

If you look back since the 1940s at least the number of new infectious diseases that have

emerged has. Over time and most of those new infectious diseases have originated from

animals, particularly wildlife. And the reason why these new infectious diseases are increasingly

emerging is because of human activities that place humans in closer contact to wildlife.

In particular It’s the clearing of tropical rainforests, because by doing that, people are coming

into close contact with the displaced wildlife that no longer have a home. Reason number two

is because of the trade in wildlife both legal and illegal around the world. When people move

animals around for food or for pets or for whatever the reason, there are opportunities for the viruses that that circulate in those wildlife to move along with those animals and then jump

over and infect people. And reason number three is. Of poor infection control practices during

the raising of livestock that creates opportunities for viruses to jump species.

And so, for those three reasons we are seeing animal viruses increasingly infect humans.

The findings in the mutations that this virus has that would suggest that the protein that the

virus uses to attach to cells has changed. And so that might lead to changes in how effective thevaccines are.

The bottom line you know regardless of all of the uncertainty in terms of transmissibility of Omicron, how severe the illness is that American causes is that we still have preventative measures available at our fingertips. Right now, that is wearing masks, keeping social distancing, and getting vaccinated. And, you know, the data that we have available suggests that all of

those preventative measures are still applicable to Omicron. So everyone should still take thoseprecautions so that they can reduce their chances of getting sick and reduce the chances of

spreading the virus to other people.

CAROLYN PRESUTTI:

Earlier, I said the World Health Organization uses Greek letters to identify COVID variants.

Well, Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet; but it’s only the 5th designated as a higher “variant of concern”. Plus, it’s the first with that classification since the Delta variant was discovered in early April.

So, why use the Greek alphabet? To avoid the stigma of connecting a variant with the country where it was first discovered and its people.

But its detection can still negatively affect a region. South Africa was dealt a financial blow when travel to and from the country paused after the discovery of Omicron.

From inside Johannesburg, VOA’s Linda Givetash says the South African economy was already struggling.

LINDA GIVETASH, VOA Reporter:

This historical site and museum at the center of the Apartheid struggle in South Africa is normally bustling with tourists.

Since the discovery of the omicron coronavirus variant last week, foreign visitors have vanished. The United Kingdom was the first to halt flights to South Africa, with the United States and other countries quickly following suit.

People working in the tourism industry say panic over the new variant is decimating business, just as travel was starting to pick up over the past two months.

Wayne Barnes, MoAfrika Tours Sales Manager:

When the U.K. actually opened up and took us off the red list, we started seeing an increase [in] numbers [of] travelers from all around the world started to support us again. So, their decisions are definitely affecting, you know, everybody around the world on their decisions.

LINDA GIVETASH:

And the decision blindsided many.

Barnes says his company lost over $30,000 to refunds in just one day for canceled December bookings.

Tour guides went from leading groups of over 40 people last week to no one today.

Thabang Moleya, Tour Guide:

I’m very hurt at the moment, namely, because things were starting to look like we were starting to be working normally, that which will remind us of life before COVID.

LINDA GIVETASH:

It’s not just the tourism industry that’s hurting.

From vehicle suppliers to website developers, the collapse of travel is having a domino effect across the economy.

Nearly 47% of South Africans were jobless last quarter, according to government statistics released this week.

It’s a bleak landscape for parents and breadwinners like Thabang Moleya who are again facing layoffs.

Thabang Moleya, Tour Guide:

At some point, I wanted to come up with an idea of what one can do. Also, it was not easy for one to find any job. I’m just hoping and believing that one day one would work again, the world would travel again.

LINDA GIVETASH:

But economists say recovery is years away. And locking down will only slow that recovery and make life harder for the poorest.

Dawie Roodt, Economist:

The biggest killer out there is not a virus or TB, or AIDS or anything, the biggest killer out there is poverty. It might be necessary to prevent larger crowds to get together and things like that. But it’s not necessarily necessary to stop airlines from flying and to necessarily stop people from going, stay at home [and] not go to work, or stay at home and not go to the factory and things like that.

LINDA GIVETASH:

For those who have managed to cling to their jobs, the situation still feels demoralizing.

Mbali Ngema, Johannesburg Tourism Ambassador:

Before, you used to have that thing of waking up in the morning to say I’m going to work, I’m going to see new people, I’m going to meet new people. But due to this, you just wake up and you sit and you do nothing.

LINDA GIVETASH:

Until scientists better understand the omicron variant and politicians change their views on travel, South Africans will have to continue waiting for normal life to return. Linda Givetash, for VOA News, Johannesburg.

CAROLYN PRESUTTI:

In our press freedom spotlight this week –

Journalists from Belarus, Guatemala, and beyond were honored at this year’s International Press Freedom Awards.

The awards are presented annually by the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists. They are given to winners who are reporting under increasingly hostile conditions.

VOA’s Julie Taboh introduces us to several of the honorees in this week’s Press Freedom spotlight.

JULIE TABOH, VOA Correspondent:

Aye Chan Naing is executive director and chief editor of the Voice of Burma, or DVB.

His independent news outlet suffered in the aftermath of Myanmar’s military coup when the junta seized power and started cracking down on media.

Naing has been in exile in Norway where DVB now broadcasts via satellite, into Burma ((also known as Myanmar.))

Aye Chan Naing, Democratic Voice of Burma Executive Director:

The military have arrested over 100 journalists after the coup in February 2021. And still about 50 people are still being detained in prison.

JULIE TABOH:

Including more than a dozen of his own journalists.

Naing is one of the recipients of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2021 International Press Freedom Awards.

Aye Chan Naing, Democratic Voice of Burma Executive Director:

I think this award will highlight the plight of our journalists on the ground, who are in prison, but also who are still struggling to report, risking their life, risking their future.

JULIE TABOH:

Also honored are journalists from Belarus, Guatemala, and Mozambique for their reporting at a time of dire conditions for media in their respective countries.

Joel Simon, Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director:

I think that our honorees recognize, and we recognize, that the environment for independent journalism has changed everywhere, including in the United States. The challenges are greater, that period of profound optimism that existed when I started this job 25 years ago, unfortunately, that’s no longer the case.

JULIE TABOH:

Anastasia Mejia knows first-hand.

The Guatemalan journalist was the only reporter covering a protest in her hometown of Joyabaj in August of 2020. She was later detained.

Anastasia Mejía, Guatemalan Journalist:

I was deprived of my liberty for 36 days; the hearings were postponed in order to delay the process.

JULIE TABOH:

A judge ruled that she was not guilty. But Mejía is still afraid.

Anastasia Mejía, Guatemalan Journalist:

If I keep talking, they will kill me, they will destroy my family.

JULIE TABOH:

Joel Simon says that while he feels guardedly optimistic about the future of journalism, he is also a realist.

Joel Simon, Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director:

Press freedom or freedom of expression is the battle of the information age, and we must prevail, and we must know that we’re in a really difficult and prolonged struggle.

JULIE TABOH:

As for Aye Chan Naing, he also remains in the struggle for press freedom.

Aye Chan Naing, Democratic Voice of Burma Executive Director:

I think it’s a really bright future; now, almost more than 10 months after the coup, the military [[is]] never really able to silence the country and silence the people, and we’re getting tons of information from around the country.

The first time when I left Burma in 1988, it took 20 years before I could go back to Burma. And my hope is this time around, it won’t take that long.

JULIE TABOH:

Julie Taboh, VOA News.

CAROLYN PRESUTTI:

That’s all for now.

I’m Carolyn Presutti.

Follow me on Twitter at CarolynVOA.

Connect with us on Instagram and Facebook at VOANews.

And stay up to date any time of the day online at VOANews.com.

For all of those behind the scenes who brought you today’s show, thanks for joining us and stay safe out there.

We’ll see you again next week for The Inside Story.

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