The discovery of the new variant, Omicron, has left everyone wondering what the future holds for us. It has been classified by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern.” Botswana in Southern Africa was the first to discover the mutational changes.
Omicron is believed to spread quicker than the Delta variant with more than 30 mutations. It has double the number of variations, which makes vaccines less effective. The changes in the spike proteins help the virus replicate faster. The two mutations that have caused this are R203K and G204R.
Moreover, Omicron goes undetected in the body due to three mutations, H655Y, N679K and P681H. So, it requires some correction to the existing vaccines against the super strain. But if not promptly acted upon, then it could result in more hospitalizations and fatalities.
However, there might be a silver lining to the spread of the new strain. General physicians in Southern Africa report that the symptoms are mild but unusual. The death rate due to COVID-19 and hospitalization has not increased notably.
WHO is optimistic that it might be less dangerous than the previous Delta variant, as infected patients report nausea, headaches, fatigue, and high pulse rate. Loss of taste and/or smell is yet to be noted, but patients are not suffering from it to date.
WHO has issued statements and updated us about the Omicron variant B.1.1.52. Here is what we know so far about the new variant of concern based on research from South Africa:
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Epidemiological studies are being conducted to connect the rise in positive patients in South Africa. It is not clear yet what could be the reason for high transmissibility compared to the Delta variant. It might be because of the strain or other factors, like lack of preventative measures, favorable conditions, etc.
Severity of Disease
The severity of Omicron is still not entirely known compared to other variants. There is an increase in hospitalization rates, which is not necessarily because of seriousness.
However, it might take weeks before confirmation of the increased rates of hospitalization. University students were predominant among the positive patients with mild symptoms. So, prevention is the key to stopping the further spread of the new unknown strain.
WHO suggests an increased risk of reinfection among recovered patients with prior SARS-CoV-2 infection. The preliminary knowledge is limited, but precaution is necessary. In the coming weeks, more light will be shed on the matter. So, where does it leave us with the effectiveness of vaccines, current tests, and treatment?
Research is being conducted to understand the potential countermeasures needed to fight Omicron. Vaccines proved to reduce severe cases and fatalities due to the Delta variant. The new mutations have reduced the efficacy of current vaccines by 40%. But they are still effective against severe infections.
Previously, PCR tests were run on other COVID-19 strains that successfully detected Omicron as well. Moreover, there is no new knowledge about how it might impact rapid antigen detection methods. Studies are being conducted to know more about its effectiveness.
Patients with severe symptoms are currently being treated with corticosteroids and IL6 receptor blockers. The effectiveness will be checked with changes in the variant, and other treatments will be assessed and considered if required.
Areas of Research Conducted by WHO
All over the world, research is being conducted on the new variant, Omicron. The following areas are assessed:
- Severity of infection
- Efficacy of vaccines
- Diagnostic tests
Data is collected globally from every hospital with patients who contracted Omicron to characterize the symptoms. Moreover, the variant is being observed to see any further mutations and changes in the virus’s behavior.
What WHO recommends for countries to fight against Omicron?
They have asked countries to work together to get to the bottom of the current situation quicker. Here are some recommendations:
- Research institutes need to enhance their reach and surveillance
- Sequencing the viral genome from infected patients
- Sharing of Genome sequences in public databases, like GISAID
- Conduction of field investigations
- Intensive laboratory assessments to characterize Omicron
- Carry out studies for improving vaccines and therapeutics for an enhanced immune response.
- Carry out social measures to prevent spread
- Increase public health and medical capacities
- Implement guidance provided by WHO
- Ensure access to treatment
- Supply vaccines to frontline workers
How can you remain safe from the variant of concern, Omicron?
The most effective way to reduce the spread and prevent infection is by practicing social distancing. Maintain a physical distance of at least 1 meter and wear a well-fitted mask. Sit in a well-ventilated area and avoid crowded spaces. Moreover, use your elbow to cough or sneeze and constantly wash your hands. Stay up to date with all the latest information from WHO about Omicron.
Where has Omicron spread so far?
Protection is necessary, as the new variant has spread to Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Czech Republic, Italy, and the UK. Countries have started to suspend international flights to prevent further spread of the new strain.
Moreover, other countries like Israel and Hong Kong have recently confirmed cases due to international travelers. Southern African countries like South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique previously reported this deadly virus.
Due to tweaks in the vaccine, governments are on high alert globally. Moderna has begun to imply its comprehensive strategy to overcome the new recombinant spike protein of Omicron. They believe that the current 50 µg booster dose of mRNA-1273 is not sufficient.
It is clear that prevention is vital to the further spread of COVID-19. The easiest way to stay safe from Omicron is by following WHO guidelines. But we still don’t know what high transmissibility has in store for the future. What do you think about it?