Omicron: everything you need to know about the new variant
Respiratory expert, Associate Professor Yuben Moodley, from the Institute for Respiratory Health answers key questions about coronavirus variant first detected in southern Africa.
What is it called?
The variant was initially referred to as B.1.1.529, but on Friday was designated as a variant of concern (VOC) by the World Health Organization because of its “concerning” mutations and because “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant”. The WHO system assigns such variants a Greek letter, to provide a non-stigmatising label that does not associate new variants with the location where they were first detected. The new variant has been called Omicron.
When was the Omicron variant first detected?
The B.1.1.529 variant was identified on Tuesday and highlighted as a concern due to its high number of mutations, which could lead it to evade immunity. It was also linked to a surge in case numbers in the Gauteng province of South Africa, an urban area containing Pretoria and Johannesburg, in the past two weeks.
Where did it come from?
Although initially linked to Gauteng, the variant did not necessarily originate there. The earliest sample showing the variant was collected in Botswana on 11 November. Scientists say that the unusual constellation of mutations suggests it may have emerged during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, such as an untreated HIV/Aids patient.
Why are scientists worried about it?
The variant has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein – the key used by the virus to unlock our body’s cells – more than double the number carried by Delta. Such a dramatic change has raised concerns that the antibodies from previous infections or vaccination may no longer be well matched. Purely based on knowing the list of mutations, scientists anticipate that the virus will be more likely to infect – or reinfect – people who have immunity to earlier variants.
Is it more transmissible?
This is not yet clear cut but the emerging picture is worrying. There has been a surge of cases in South Africa from 273 cases on 16 November to more than 1,200 by the start of this week. More than 80 per cent of these were from Gauteng province and preliminary analysis suggests the variant has rapidly become the dominant strain. The R value, which indicates how fast an epidemic is growing, is estimated to be 1.47 for South Africa as a whole, but 1.93 in Gauteng. There is a chance this is a statistical blip linked to a super-spreader event but the data has triggered enough concern for precautionary measures.
Will existing vaccines work against it?
Scientists are concerned by the number of mutations and the fact some of them have already been linked to an ability to evade existing immune protection. These are theoretical predictions, though, and studies are rapidly being conducted to test how effectively antibodies neutralise the new variant.
We need to have clear real-world data. We don’t know for sure that it spreads faster, makes vaccines or drugs less effective or whether it leads to more severe disease.
We should let South African scientists do their job, there was a similar situation in South Africa in August when there was a variant called C.1.2 everyone was concerned as it had a huge number of genetic mutations. But now it’s not even a variant of interest.
It’s important that protective measures are introduced in places where the variant is already present. Everything must be done to prevent it from spreading, including:
• Getting vaccinated
• Wearing masks
• Maintaining safe distances
• Monitoring all the time.
We need to optimise all the tools we have to prevent infection.
Source: the Guardian