The World Health Organization (WHO) pronounced the B.1.1.529 (variant of COVID-19) as a “variant of concern” on 26 November 2021. It was named Omicron. The evidence of multiple mutations was presented to the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).
The discovery was made by the Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA). They first found a group of related SARS-CoV-2 viruses which belonged to the family of B.1.1.529. They immediately reported to the WHO about people testing positive for this variant in South Africa. It is still not confirmed if this strain is actually the cause of the newly formed cluster or if it is because of some other associated factors.
There is still no clarity on the severity of the disease caused by Omicron compared to the other variants of COVID-19. All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant, affected almost all parts of the world and caused high fatality, especially in those suffering from other ailments, immune disorders, cancers and other age-related long-term illnesses.
What is Omicron?
Omicron has more than 30 spike protein mutations compared to other mutations like the Delta variant. The spike protein is that part of the virus that holds on to the cell and penetrates it. The function of those mutations is not completely understood, but it is assumed that these spike protein mutations help in the penetration of cells. This points to the fact that it can be highly transmissible.
Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased chance of re-infection with Omicron (i.e., people who were infected with COVID-19, could get re-infected more easily with Omicron). Current vaccines are thought to be effective against severe disease and death, yet there are chances that these mutations can evade vaccines efficacy.
More studies are underway to detect the efficacy of current vaccines on Omicron. PCR tests are being used to detect the Omicron variant as well. Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will be effective in treating patients with severe COVID-19. So, there is still hope!
The South African Medical Association said that Omicron hasn’t caused any deaths so far and the sympto. Researchers are testing antibodies from people who are vaccinated, and checking if they are capable of neutralising the virus. They are yet to release findings on this in the coming weeks.
What are the pharmaceutical companies forecasting?
Several vaccines are already available in the market and people are already being vaccinated. The administration of booster doses is also continuing in some parts of the world. Highly populated countries are still catching up in this regard, but the vulnerable sections of society are mostly taken care of.
Vaccine companies like Moderna have already started working on the new variant, whereas Pfizer is analysing the data collected before taking any action. Either way, pharma companies are getting ready to provide the new version of the vaccine within a short span of time. Pfizer has also developed the COVID-19 antiviral pill, which has not yet been approved by the FDA. These might work against variants like Omicron because it is said to target the spike mutations. More trials or data may be required before it is ready to use.
Current updates about Omicron
Globally, researchers are already collecting data to share with the world. More updates are expected in the coming weeks.
Transmissibility: There is no clarity if Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta. It is still unconfirmed if this strain is the cause of the newly formed cluster or if there are other factors behind it.
Severity of disease: There is currently no data available to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those of other variants. Initially reported infections were among university students who had mild symptoms. So, understanding its severity will take some more time.
Effectiveness of vaccines: Vaccines are critical to reduce severe disease and death, even against the dangerous Delta variant. Along with the pharmaceutical companies, the WHO is constantly monitoring the efficacy of already available vaccines against these mutants.
Effectiveness of current tests: The PCR tests detect infection, including infection with Omicron. However, studies are ongoing to determine the efficacy of other tests, like rapid antigen detection tests.
WHO recommendations to governments
As Omicron has been designated a “variant of concern”, the WHO recommends countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing of cases and share them in publicly-available databases like GISAID. Governments have been asked to report infection clusters, perform investigations and laboratory assessments to get a better understanding of Omicron’s characteristics, effectiveness of vaccines, available treatments and diagnostics, and also enhance social measures.
WHO also recommends getting vulnerable groups (health workers and the aged) vaccinated at the earliest, if not already done.
The best people can do in this scenario
As said, ‘prevention is always better than cure’. The first requisite is to get vaccinated. It is dangerous to wait and watch as the life-threatening Delta variant and other mutations are still causing chaos. Wear a mask in public and indoor settings to protect yourself and the people around you. Several countries have already imposed travel bans to delay transmission of the new mutation. This will definitely offer some time to improve public health and medical capacity in case of a crisis.
People should also maintain social distance (one-meter gap), wear a well-fitting mask, open windows to improve ventilation, avoid crowded spaces and keep hands sanitised.
Are children more likely to contract the Omicron variant?
Research on Omicron’s transmissibility is ongoing, and more information will be updated as and when available. However, people mixing socially and the unvaccinated are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. Hence, it is imperative to take special care of children and the elderly, and they should be made aware of the situation in an age-appropriate way.
STAY SAFE, EVERYONE!