How worried should we be about the Omicron variant and what we know so far?

How worried should we be about the Omicron variant and what we know so far?




THE new Omicron coronavirus variant was identified in South Africa first. It was classified by WHO, on Friday, as a ‘variant of concern’. The virus has also been detected in Europe and Asia.

Rising cases are raising concern worldwide given the number of mutations, which might help it spread or even evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination.

Early indications point to the fact that this variant, which belongs to a lineage named B.1.1.529,  is possibly even more transmissible than the highly infectious Delta variant, and that current vaccines may be less effective against it.

News of the variant prompted countries to announce new travel restrictions on Friday and sent drugmakers scrambling to see if their Covid-19 vaccines remain protective.

Several nations rushed to ban flights from South Africa and a few other countries, to slow the spread of Omicron on Friday, while stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) of South Africa has ruled out any “unusual symptoms" considering the cases reported following infection with the B.1.1.529 variant. They have, however, highlighted the fact that, as with other infectious variants such as Delta, some individuals are asymptomatic.

Why are scientists worried?

The World Health Organization on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant, or Omicron, as a SARS-CoV-2 "variant of concern," saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of coronavirus.

The Delta variant remains dominant worldwide, accounting for 99.9% of U.S. cases, and it is not yet clear whether Omicron will be able to displace Delta, said Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director, infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

But the new variant has over 30 mutations in the part of the virus that current vaccines target. It is also suspected of driving a spike in new infections in South Africa.

Omicron's mutations are likely to render certain Covid-19 treatments - including some manufactured antibodies - ineffective, said Dr. David Ho, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University.

Experimental antiviral pills - such as Pfizer Inc's Paxlovid and Merck & Co Inc's molnupiravir - target parts of the virus that are not changed in Omicron, and these drugs could become even more important if vaccine-induced and natural immunity are threatened.

What we don't know

Scientists say it could be several more weeks before they can define the type of disease caused by the variant, determine how contagious it is and identify how far it has already spread.

Some note that other variants of concern, including Beta, which was also first detected in South Africa, were ultimately replaced by Delta.

But the biggest question remains whether protection from Covid-19 vaccines - nearly 8 billion doses have been administered globally - will hold up. And, will people previously infected with the coronavirus be immune from infection with Omicron?

Experts also don't yet know whether Omicron will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other coronavirus strains.

What could be the best response?

Omicron has not yet been identified in the United States, but it is likely already here, scientists said.

Even without the new variant, U.S. Covid-19 rates have increased in recent weeks, mainly in northern states, as people move indoors to avoid winter weather.

Some countries have moved to limit travel from southern Africa. Beyond government restrictions, individuals should still assess their own vulnerability to Covid and tolerance for risk as they make travel decisions for the winter holidays, Snyder from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said.

He and others said vaccination should remain a priority despite questions about effectiveness against Omicron because it is likely that they still remain protective to a certain extent. Everyone should also continue to wear masks, avoid crowds, ventilate rooms, and wash hands.

All the expert bodies have stressed that vaccination remains critical, especially to protect groups at high risk of hospitalization and death. Real-time data have shown that high vaccination rates also significantly reduce the strain on health systems.

"We have all those tools that will work against any variant," said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

What has WHO instructed?

According to a statement released by WHO, countries have been asked to do the following:

•Enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.

•Submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.

•Report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.

•Where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on Covid-19 epidemiology, severity, the effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.

“More investigations are under way to determine the possible impact of these mutations on the capacity of the virus to transmit more efficiently, to impact vaccine effectiveness and evade the immune response, and/or to cause more severe or milder disease," the Africa Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has said.