India reported its first cases of the new Omicron variant in Karnataka on the 2nd of December. The news spread like wildfire and certainly had most of us scared. In the emerging set of developments, we take a look at how scared we should be of the Omicron variant.
The new variant of COVID-19 which has been named Omicron by the World Health Organisation and declared ‘Variant of Concern’ is a matter of research for scientists across the world.
The new variant which was first detected in South Africa is believed to be more transmissible than the previously known variants.
It was the Delta variant to be specific, that scientists believe is twice as contagious as previous variants and brought the deadly second wave of the COVID-19 in India during April-May and also wreaked havoc in several parts of the world with several cases of hospitalisation and deaths.
It also remains to be seen whether Omicron will surpass the Delta variant in terms of its severity and only time and extensive research will give a clear answer. But how is the Omicron variant different from the delta variant?
Delta VS Omicron
When Scientists got their first look at the omicron variant, it didn’t take long to see the differences. More than 30 mutations made the variant’s spike proteins, which cover the outside of the virus and are the main targets of vaccines and the body’s immune responses, different from any of the variants that have emerged so far.
Even more than the delta variant, which has been the most contagious variant yet. In fact, the highly infectious Delta variant has only two mutations in this location.
Spike protein is the compound that enables a virus to enter the host cell and is what makes it more transmissible and infectious. Having said that, mutations to the spike protein only makes it more difficult to detect and eliminate.
Although there is no data available to suggest that Omicron is more transmissible, following the sudden spike in the numbers of COVID-19 cases, experts believe it could have an increased rate of transmissibility. This is exactly what happened in South Africa, where the new variant had originated.
Rising Cases In South Africa
In mid-November, South Africa was reporting about 300 cases a day. On Dec 1, the country reported 8,561 new cases, up from 4,373 the day before and 2,273 on 30th of november. It’s too early to be certain that the Omicron variant is responsible for the rise in cases, but it is very possible, say experts. A point to note is that several doctors in SA say that the symptoms of the new variant have so far been mild. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are rising in South Africa, but not at the dramatic rate of the new cases.
What Does WHO Say
According to the WHO, preliminary data suggests that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with ‘Omicron’. That means those who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with this variant.
The World Health Organization is warning that the new omicron variant of the coronavirus poses a “very high” global risk because of the possibility that it spreads more easily and might resist vaccines and immunity in people who were infected with previous strains.
Will Vaccines Be Effective?
Experts say that given that most COVID vaccines are developed to form antibodies against the spike protein, the multiple mutations in the spike protein only makes the vaccines less effective, leading to decreased efficacy.
Studies are being conducted to test how effectively antibodies neutralise the new variant. Scientists feel that the variant will be recognisable to existing antibodies, but not entirely. So, the current vaccines may give less protection.
Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla has said that the data regarding the effectiveness of Covishield against the Omicron variant will be available in the next two to three weeks.
WHO says it will take us another two to four weeks to figure out what’s going on with the new variant.