The COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recent times—causing disruptions in almost every facet of our lives. The discovery of vaccines, however, halted the spread of the virus around the world. While the world was steadily recovering from the delta variant of the virus, the newly found ‘Omicron’ variant has prompted a new, alarming concern for countries around the world.
First detected in South Africa, the Omicron variant has quickly started spreading across other countries as well. Alongside a major stock market drop and renewed international travel bans, the new variant is anticipated to have a lot more impacts threatening the world. Recently, WHO has called omicron “A Variant of Concern.” Amid all the speculations and talks, here is all you need to know about the new variant.
As per WHO, the earliest-known case of the omicron variant was detected on November 9, and the first mutation was detected on November 24. While the delta variant still accounts for a majority of COVID cases around the world, the onset of the omicron variant has coincided with a surge in cases in South Africa—with a whopping 1400 percent increase over the past couple of weeks.
Mutations and Transmissibility
There are several different opinions on the transmissibility of the new variant. According to early evidence, the omicron variant of the virus is even more contagious than the delta variant. The new variant has more than 30 mutations on the spike protein—a part of the virus that binds to a human cell and infects it. Thus, omicron is anticipated to be more transmissible and has more potential to evade the immunity provided by the vaccines.
Dr. Anthony Fauci (Director of NIAID U.S.) believes that the virus will spread all over the world by saying, “When you have a virus showing this degree of transmissibility & you are having travel-related cases, it almost invariably is going to go all over.”
WHO, however, counters this argument by saying it is not yet clear whether omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants including Delta. Although cases in South Africa have risen significantly, epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is due to omicron or some other factors.
Symptoms and Severity
According to an advisory by WHO, it is not clear whether the infection with Omicron causes more severe diseases compared to the infections from other variants. Moreover, there is no strong evidence to prove that the symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those with the other variants. Although the initial infections were found primarily among younger university students who tend to have more mild diseases, WHO adds that understanding the level of the severity as well as symptoms of the variant will take days to several weeks. Moreover, preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron as compared to the other variants.
The Potency of the Vaccine and Tests
As there is still a lot to be discovered about the Omicron variant, it will take time to understand if the existing vaccines are effective against the same. However, leading vaccine manufacturers like Moderna and Pfizer have announced that they already have plans in place to adapt their vaccine if necessary. Johnson &Johnson and AstraZeneca are also investigating and testing the new variant.
Enunciating his views on the latest developments of the virus, Stephane Bancel (CEO of Moderna) said, “From the beginning, we have said that as we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves. The mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant.”
Furthermore, WHO has stated that the widely used PCR tests continue to detect the COVID infection including Omicron as well. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.
Presently, WHO is collaborating with several researchers and institutes around the world to extract more information about the virus. Moreover, WHO is encouraging countries to contribute to the collection and sharing of hospitalized patient data through its WHO COVID-19 Clinical Data Platform.
The platform aims to rapidly describe clinical characteristics and patient outcomes, assess the variations in the clinical characteristics and describe the temporary trends in clinical characteristics of COVID-19. WHO continues to evaluate and monitor the data as it becomes available. It will also assess how mutations in the Omicron variant affect the behavior of the virus.
The USA recently announced travel restrictions on eight Southern African countries including Lesotho, South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Botswana. Other countries like the UK, Germany, Australia, France, etc. are also imposing travel restrictions on southern African nations to curb the spread of the new variant.
How to Negate the Threat?
In the recently published advisory, WHO has suggested several precautionary measures one must take to avoid infection with the latest variant. According to the advisory, the most effective step an individual can take to curb the spread of the virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 meter from others. It also advises to wear a well-fitting mask, open windows to improve ventilation, avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces, keep hands clean, cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue, and get vaccinated as soon as one is eligible.
With new information coming out each day, we can soon anticipate a clearer picture of the new variant and its impacts as well as probable solutions. Till then, all we can do is to follow the COVID-19 norms, stay indoors as much as possible, and take care of ourselves and our loved ones to stay safe!