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What we know about the Omicron coronavirus variant so far

The hunt for answers – like whether the Omicron variant will trigger new waves of infection.

More than two dozen countries and territories have now detected cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant - © AFP
More than two dozen countries and territories have now detected cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant - © AFP

The current focus with the coronavirus pandemic is with the Omicron variant (as revealed through genome-sequencing data). In terms of what the level of concern is in relation to the severity of COVID-19 or the virulence of the new variant, it is too early to determine although some data of interest is emerging.

With coronavirus variants, all viruses, including the coronavirus causing the pandemic – SARS-CoV-2 – change over time. Generally, the changes are not significant in terms of a virus’ properties. However, some changes can affect the virus’s properties. This may include how easily a virus spreads, the disease severity, how well a vaccine will work, how well therapeutic medicine function and with other necessary public health measures.

With the coronavirus, there are genomic investigations to assess new variants and a pre-set naming system, as described by the World Health Organisation.

This process has recently led to the describing of a variant named Omicron (or B.1.1.529), first detected in southern African countries. This variant is of concern due to the extent of the mutations that have occurred. However, a period of patience is required before scientists can assess whether the virus is superior (and therefore of a greater risk to human health) in terms of one or more properties.

Based on earlier research into structural biology mapping some of the changes recorded may make the virus bind to receptor sites in the human body much better. Additional study will look into the virus’s capability to evade infection-blocking antibodies, as well as its response to other immune responses.

Yet there is more to understand. According to Richard Lessells, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa: “The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.”

Virologists like Lessells are particularly keen to measure the variant’s potential to spread globally. This will hopefully lead to answers as to whether the variant will trigger new waves of infection or perhaps exacerbate ongoing case rises that are currently being driven by the Delta variant.

The ultimate question is whether, because of the high number of changes that have occurred with the Omicron variant, does this reduce vaccine effectiveness? And consequently, will a new type of vaccine be required?

Not all variants present problems and event those of potential concern can seem to disappear before they reach a sufficient density within a population. This was the case with the Mu variant which emerged at the same time as the Delta variant during the summer of 2021 and a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Mu made headlines because its specific mutation meant it could evade vaccine immunity — spiking a new fear among the immunized. However, current estimates suggest that Mu rates did not increase to a level that can be regarded as significant (unlike the case with Omicron).

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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