It’s been a little over two weeks since South African scientists announced that they had identified a new SARS-CoV-2 variant. Little is known about how the variant, named Omicron, behaves. But scientists are beginning to piece together a picture of how it differs from previous variants. Harsha Somaroo unpacks what can be learnt from infection rates and hospitalisations in South Africa’s economic hub, Gauteng, which has become the epicentre of the current resurgence of COVID-19. For their part Cari van Schalkwyk, Harry Moultrie and Juliet Pulliam share findings from their recent paper, which is still in pre-print, about the transmissibility of the variant.

Over 70 countries criminalise blasphemy. Nearly half - 32 - are majority Muslim. Enforcement of the laws varies. In some countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, blasphemy is punishable by death. Ahmet T. Kuru traces the roots of blasphemy and apostasy laws in the Muslim world. His research shows that criminalizing blasphemy and apostasy is more political than it is religious. The Quran does not require punishing sacrilege: authoritarian politics do.

Caroline Southey

Founding Editor

South Africa: early data suggest Omicron is more transmissible but less severe

Harsha Somaroo, University of the Witwatersrand

Early data show that Omicron is dominating new COVID-19 cases in Gauteng province.

Omicron: evidence shows it evades immunity from earlier infection more than other variants

Cari van Schalkwyk, South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling & Analysis (SACEMA) ; Harry Moultrie, National Institute for Communicable Diseases; Juliet Pulliam, South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling & Analysis (SACEMA)

At this stage, we cannot say anything about the severity of cases with Omicron - either in primary or reinfections.

Understanding the history and politics behind Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University

A scholar of Islam explains how Muslim religious leaders, starting around the year 1050, worked with political rulers to challenge what they considered to be sacrilegious influence on society.

Deep-sea mining may wipe out species we have only just discovered

Elin Angharad Thomas, Queen's University Belfast

Among the dozens of endangered species, is a spiky snail named after The Clash lead singer, Joe Strummer.