What We Know: The World Health Organization has designated Omicron as a COVID-19 ‘Variant of Concern’

  • The Omicron variation, first reported to the WHO by South Africa on November 24, is now categorized as a variant of concern (VOC) and has been detected in 15 countries.
  • Based on the pace of growing cases in South Africa, preliminary studies indicate an increased risk of infection.
  • However, there is yet little evidence to validate this or to determine if the new version is more lethal or will ‘escape’ immunizations as predicted.
  • Current PCR testing can identify the variation, and experts are advising individuals to use masks to help prevent its spread.
  • Although Omicron has the potential to outperform the Delta variation, it is as conceivable that it will not.

The globe is once again faced with a new strain of the unique coronavirus known as Omicron.

Many nations have quickly instituted border restrictions and aircraft bans to gain time as experts strive to grasp the consequences of this new variety for public health.

The variation has a “quite odd constellation” of mutations, and there are a lot of them, which has sparked broad alarm, particularly about the protection provided by immunizations.

Although many people dread the worst-case scenario, there is no evidence that the variation is any deadlier.

Here is a summary of what we know thus far and what experts believe.

The first verified Omicron case

The first verified COVID-19 case with the Omicron form, B.1.1.529, occurred on November 11 in Botswana.

Meanwhile, South African researchers discovered a tiny number of the variation in samples gathered between November 14 and 16, leading them to notify their results to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24.

The WHO labeled Omicron a SARS-CoV-2 virus of concern on November 26th, Trusted Source. As of November 29, 15 nations, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, and Hong Kong, have reported instances of the Omicron form.

According to media sources, around 100 verified instances of the Omicron variety have been identified in South Africa. Omicron might be to blame for over 90% of new COVID-19 cases in Gauteng province, which encompasses Pretoria and Johannesburg. According to the rate, Omicron may have surpassed Delta in that region.

“The statistics are still preliminary and scarce, but Omicron is outperforming Delta in and around Johannesburg, South Africa.” This is one of the reasons why the WHO has classified Omicron as a variation of concern (VOC) rather than a variant of interest (VOI),”. In South Africa, 19 infections increased dramatically over the previous seven days to reach 2,465 daily cases last week, representing a more than 90 percent rise from November 24 to November 25. However, not all of them have been verified to be Omicron infections.

Experts are concerned about a spike in mutations.

The variant’s spike protein possesses an astounding 32 mutations, which is twice the quantity of Delta. There are additional ten mutations in the receptor-binding domain (RBD).

All viruses undergo changes, some of which alter the virus’s capacity to propagate, the severity of sickness it causes, and the effectiveness of immunizations.

The Omicron mutations will alter the structure of the spike protein, which was the major target of the vaccinations. This might make the virus less identifiable to antibodies, allowing it to bypass our immune responses and infect humans.

More time is required to evaluate infectiousness.

The Omicron variety was discovered in South Africa by Dr. Angelique Coetzee, head of the South African Medical Association. So far, she claimed, the symptoms have been modest.

However, preliminary research indicates that the Omicron variety has a reproduction (R) rate of two, which implies that every individual who obtains it is likely to pass it to two people, making it potentially more infectious than Delta.

Concerns with the Lambda, Mu, Delta plus, and other variations were all considered to be “more transmissible than Delta when they were initially detected,”. Because just 24 percent of South Africa’s population is completely vaccinated, it’s impossible to know if Omicron is out-competing Delta because there isn’t a lot of immunity yet, according to Gandhi.

The appearance of Omicron and the start of summer in the southern hemisphere corresponded with an increase in COVID-19 cases in South Africa. This is not what scientists anticipated, which might indicate that the variation is more transmissible.

But, thus far, the consensus is that we will have to wait and see.

Omicron’s vaccination resistance is unknown.

Although an unusually high number of mutations may impair vaccination response to the Omicron variety, experts think immunizations will still give enough protection against severe illness and death.

According to current statistics from Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, 65 percent of patients were unvaccinated, while 35 percent were partly vaccinated. Professor Rudo Mathivha, an ICU doctor at the hospital, has seen an increase in younger patients in their twenties and thirties being in, which might be a trend to observe.

When it comes to hospitalization, Gandhi said there are clear similarities with earlier variants: “A variation producing sickness among the unvaccinated is the same pattern as was found with Delta.” The fact that just 24% of South Africans are completely vaccinated lends credence to this.

We don’t know what will happen if it reaches a heavily vaccinated nation like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, or Germany, for example, said Dr. John Campbell, a former nursing instructor and A&E nurse stationed in England, during an online presentation.

Vaccine producers are experimenting with new formulations.

The four main vaccine producers — Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna — can easily modify their vaccinations.

Pfizer and Moderna have previously worked on improving the formulation of their COVID-19 vaccines against the Beta version. Nonetheless, they determined that there was no need since the present composition offered enough protection.

Pfizer has now said that it will require no more than two weeks to determine how effectively its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine performs against the Omicron version. The business also said that it would be able to create and distribute the modified version within 100 days.

Moderna has also said that it is developing an Omicron-specific booster.

Gandhi expressed optimism that the present vaccination formulae will still give enough protection against serious illness.

“[T] cell immunity across the spike protein is highly strong,” she adds. “It should not be completely wiped out by 30-33 mutations, because the vaccines generate polyclonal antibodies that operate against several sections of the spike protein.” “I am hoping that we will still have protection against serious illness via immunizations, as seems to be happening in South Africa,” she said.

Schaffner concurred, stating that the immunological response elicited by existing vaccinations would provide some protection against infection as well as severe disease.

He said that the level of protection is still being decided.

Vaccines remain the most effective anti-Omicron tool

Although some scientists agree that border restrictions might impede the spread of a variety if implemented early enough, others say such measures are often too late.

Although Schaffner feels that travel restrictions may allow time to prepare, he emphasizes that it is difficult to erect an “iron curtain” to keep out extremely infectious respiratory viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Gandhi believes that broad immunization would be the most effective approach for preventing new variations and assisting in the eradication of Omicron.

She said that in regions with strong vaccination coverage, such as San Francisco, a large number of cases did not translate into an increased number of hospitalizations.

Other Omicron therapies

Studies have revealed that therapeutic antivirals such as molnupiravir or Paxlovid are still effective against versions with spike protein mutations.

Gandhi elaborated:

“SARS-CoV-2’s’variants’ generate mutations along with the spike protein, which is the protein that interacts with the host cell.” The protein that connects a virus to the host cell, such as the influenza virus’s H and N spike proteins, is constantly prone to change.”

She said that such alterations were not an issue for antiviral therapies since their mode of action varied from that of vaccinations.

In terms of Omicron, Schaffner said that the efficacy of upcoming antivirals was now being studied.

How can I protect myself from Omicron?

To safeguard yourself and others, experts suggest taking the following steps:

  • Get completely vaccinated and booster shots.
  • Put on well-fitting face masks.
  • Maintain proper hand hygiene.
  • Distancing yourself physically and socially is a good idea.
  • Avoid congested areas.

In conclusion

The Omicron variety is a global worry, but it is just that for the time being.

Because of extensive precautions and immunizations, the world cannot return to where it was in March 2020. However, as with any infectious illnesses, caution is advised while experts closely monitor the new strain.

Individual protection against Omicron may be achieved by “vaccination with boosting, wearing masks in public areas, demanding immunization, as well as testing with negative findings at family and other gatherings,” according to Schaffner.

The Omicron variety looks to be more transmissible at first glance, and it is unlikely to cause serious illness in the vaccinated, but there is no strong evidence to back this up. Scientists need additional time to evaluate all areas of risk associated with the new variation.

 

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