Coronavirus has killed 5.2 million people worldwide and infected 257 million people in total. With the images of the recent second wave still sending chills down our spines, the upcoming third wave attributed to the Omicron variant is a genuine cause of concern for everyone.
What is Omicron?
Omicron is the latest fast-spreading SARS-CoV-2 variant. Detected in about 38 countries, the WHO has labelled Omicron as a “variant of concern” and said that it can escalate into a “very high” global risk with potentially severe consequences. Keeping up with the trend of naming variants after Greek alphabets, the WHO named the new B.1.1.529 variant Omicron, the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet.
While it’s too early to say how the pandemic might evolve as a result of this variant, experts continue to study how severe and transmissible it is as well as how effective or ineffective vaccines might fare against it.
The variant drew international attention due to its “unprecedented” number of mutations and is said to have the potential to be the most infections coronavirus variant to date. While Omicron could make things worse in countries that are already dealing with rising cases of the Delta variant, the good news is there have been no reported deaths so far attributed to Omicron.
What are the symptoms?
Experts say Omicron’s symptoms are similar to that of other variants. Fever, fatigue, scratchy throat, cough, shortness of breath and muscle aches are some of the major symptoms of the variant. However, a loss of taste and smell, the telltale symptom which was prevalent in the previous variants have not been extensively seen with the new variant so far.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, a South African doctor who helped discover Omicron, told the BBC that the patients she’s seen with the omicron variant to date have “extremely mild cases” of COVID-19. However, experts note that this factor could help the virus spread because people might not get tested and can transmit the virus unknowingly.
How is it different from other variants?
The WHO said there is “currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.” Omicron has more mutations compared to the Delta variant which is twice as contagious as the other variants. It will likely like take several weeks of research to determine if Omicron is less or more contagious and infectious than the Delta variant but a large number of mutations of Omicron is raising concerns in the medical fraternity.
The Omicron cases in South Africa suggest that the symptoms seem to be milder than that of Delta’s. However, South Africa has a sizable college-aged population whose immune systems can cope with the disease. Hence it becomes difficult to estimate the severity of a variant when it’s geographically localized like this scenario. Once the variant’s effects on other countries are studied, a more nuanced scientific conclusion can be reached.
Evidence suggests that Omicron has an advantage over other variants in breaking down the defences of the immune system. “From what we have learned so far, we can be fairly confident that – compared with other variants – Omicron tends to be better able to reinfect people who have been previously infected and received some protection against Covid-19,” Prof Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London told The Guardian.
The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that it remains unknown if Omicron spreads more easily than the Delta. “The Omicron variant likely will spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and how easily Omicron spreads compared to Delta remains unknown,” it said.
How fast is it spreading?
Tom Wenseleers, an evolutionary biologist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, estimates that the Omicron variant can infect three to six times as many people as Delta, over the same time period. “That’s a huge advantage for the virus — but not for us,” he told the journal Nature.
With the first Omicron case being reported in South Africa, there has been heightened surveillance in the country which could cause researchers to overestimate the growth rate of the variant. If the pattern is repeated in other countries, then it would pose as strong evidence that Omicron is indeed more transmissible than the other variants.
Are vaccines effective against the Omicron variant?
The swift rise of the variant in South Africa shows that it has some capacity to evade immunity.
Even though about one-quarter of South Africans are fully vaccinated and a sizable chunk of their population was infected in the previous waves, Omicron still managed to be a threat to public health. Due to Omicron, vaccines may now not be as effective but they won’t be ineffective and still are our best bet against the upcoming waves of the pandemic.
“It is extremely unlikely this variant will evade vaccines completely,” said Prof Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London to The Guardian. “The vaccines we have are remarkably effective against a range of other variants but we need more lab and real-world data to determine the degree of protection in those vaccinated.”
While health officials and drugmakers await highly-anticipated lab results to estimate to what degree Omicron can evade vaccine efficacy, for now, the existing boosters are the best defence against the new variant and the highly contagious delta variant, Dr Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser said as reported by the CNBC.
Vaccine inequity – one of the key reasons behind Omicron
Experts have warned international governments and organisations against panicking and creating hysteria around the new variant. WHO experts have also been warning countries to not go about imposing travel restrictions in place as those are ‘extreme measures’ which WHO states are not needed in such mild situations. “These types of interventions are not sustainable. Those types of extreme measures are not our recommendations,” said Dr Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer at WHO’s Regional Office for Europe.
While there has been evidence that even though the first reported case of Omicron comes from South Africa, there were cases of the variant in the Netherlands about a week prior to that. People have pointed out the discrimination behind the travel bans against an African country with many pointing to the glaring vaccine inequity’s role in the spread of Omicron.
“The emergence of the omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue,” South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said in an address, reiterating the point that until everyone is safe from the virus, no one is safe from the virus.