What is the Omicron variant?
Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 is the latest strain of the coronavirus to be designated a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization. There are more and more countries reporting cases, and it has an unusual combination of mutations that may end up being resistant to treatment.
It's a new form of the virus and has a greater range of mutations. There's more concern among scientists and public health officials because it can be transmitted easier.
The WHO has called the Omicron strain a “variant of concern” and warned that risks are high, despite uncertainties.
As of now, 20 countries have reported cases of the Omicron virus. They include Britain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. As most recently updated by US authorities on Wednesday, Omicron has also been detected in the US. A traveler from South Africa detected the virus upon his return to California.
Should we be concerned?
After discovering the virus, Omicron has prompted panic across the globe, including that of countries that have banned flights from southern Africa or barred foreign travelers from entering. These include Israel, Japan and Morocco.
However, public health experts are urging caution and say there is no evidence to show that this new strain is worse than previous ones like Delta. Whilst Delta quickly overtook its precursors in the USA and other countries, the USA team observed that it peaked at a lower level than previously observed strains before declining.
Delta virus is much more contagious than its predecessors, but there are little data to show it's any more severe. It might be slightly trickier for vaccines to protect us from, but there's no evidence it has fatal results.
There are still many questions about Omicron that need to be answered. There is some evidence, though, that the variant of Omicron can reactivate more easily and cause more serious illnesses.
There may be early signs that Omicron only causes mild cases of illness, but this observation is based on South Africa’s young population, who are less likely to experience severe illness from Covid.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association, said that the nation’s hospitals were not overwhelmed by patients infected with the new variant, and most of those hospitalized were not fully immunized. Moreover, most patients she had seen did not lose their sense of taste and smell, and had only a slight cough.
Regeneron has discovered that Covid may not be as effective against Omicron, which means they might need to make some changes if this variant is able to spread aggressively.
That being said, Omicron’s emergence is so recent that it may be some time before experts know whether it is more pathogenic. Covid hospitalizations lag new infections by two or more weeks.
Scientists are looking forward to finding out more in the coming weeks. Till date, there is no evidence it is immune to vaccines.
Vaccine developers have been hard at work developing new vaccines to combat new variants of the virus. They are confident that they can modify existing vaccines to make them more effective.
Are scientists concerned about Omicron?
As the coronavirus replicates inside people, new mutations constantly arise. Most provide it with no new advantage, but sometimes mutations can give the pathogen a leg up by allowing it spread more readily among its human hosts or dodge the body's immune system.
Researchers in South Africa have sounded the alarm as they found more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, a component on the surface as it binds to human cells and enters your body.
The Covid-19 spike is the target of antibodies that the immune system produces to fight an infection. Having so many mutations raises concerns that Omicron's spike might be right to evade antibodies produced by previous infections.
Still, we need to remember the fate of earlier variants - like Beta and Mu - that were unable to complete their global agenda. They evolved the ability to evade some of the body's immune defenses, but they never became a serious threat.
What about vaccines?
Vaccines provide some protection for viruses like Omicron because they stimulate the immune system, not only by generating antibodies (which are proteins made by the body to fight disease) but also other cells that kill virus-infected cells. Mutation of the spike protein does not affect its response. Experts believe this is what keeps people from getting serious illnesses and it keeps people from dying.
Companies such as Pfizer, BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca have all stated that they are researching Omicron. They seem confident in their ability to tackle the problem.
Why is it called Omicron?
The World Health Organization has designated the B.1.1.529 variant omicron after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet in order to identify cases of concern and promote early intervention for the disease.
In order to quickly identify new variants of the coronavirus, the World Health Organization used a list of Greek letters – α , β, γ, δ – to name them. The first variant of concern was identified by a British laboratory in late 2002.
But veterans of American sorority and fraternity life might have noticed that "Nu" and "Xi" are two letters not mentioned in the alphabetical order.
Officials thought Nu would be too easily mistaken as “new”, but Xi sounded like a potentially daunting option. Experts expressed concerns as it's also common as a last name and can be confused as the abbreviation for the World Health Organization.
Does being fully vaccinated help?
Like Delta, another worrying variant of the virus was first identified in India. This points to a more significant issue rather than the 1 year and 17 day pandemic which has affected other countries.
Wealthier countries often do not buy as many vaccines as poorer countries, which opens up space for the virus to evolve among those that were not vaccinated. More mutations means a more diverse mutation - a lot can change from one SARS CoV-2 to the next.
As the spread of Delta showed, a dangerous new variant is unlikely to remain in one place for very long.
The risks encompass more than just public health. The economic repercussions of a new variant can affect affluent countries to the same degree as developing countries. One academic study estimated that there is a potentially large economic loss for wealthier countries due to their residents not being vaccinated. It could be trillions of dollars depending on the research, but it's definitely a huge number.