Just when we thought the Covid pandemic is starting to subside (for the most part), a new variant B.1.1.529 was detected in South Africa on 24th November that WHO has now classified as a “variant of concern.” According to WHO, the new variant now called “Omicron” has an increased risk of reinfection as compared to other variants of concern.
Good To Know!
The current PCR test is able to detect it and “this test can be used as a marker for this variant pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage (WHO).”
Omicron is being described as “heavily mutated” and its cases are increasingly being found in South Africa. It is advised that people maintain social distancing, ensure hand hygiene, wear masks, avoid crowded spaces, open windows for ventilation, and most importantly, get vaccinated.
Symptoms & Severity
According to the South African doctor, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who was the first one to identify a different covid strain in patients coming to her, stated that the symptoms are “extremely mild.” The symptoms although mild are different than the delta variant of covid, another variant that raised alarm in the last few months.
She noticed that her patients complained of extreme fatigue, headaches, and body aches. According to the doctor, “Symptoms at that stage were very much related to normal viral infection. And because we haven’t seen COVID-19 for the past eight to 10 weeks, we decided to test.” The test came out positive. She saw more patients with similar symptoms on the same day and alerted South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases” (NICD).
Dr. Coetzee while enlightening about the symptoms of the newly found strain, told Reuters:
She went on to state that most of the patients she treated were not vaccinated. They did not complain of a loss of taste or smell and there was no significant drop in their oxygen levels either. Additionally, in her experience, the affected patients were either 40 or younger.
As far as the severity and transmissibility of Omicron goes, WHO’s update on 28th November stated that it is still not clear whether the new variant is more severe or more transmissible. However, South African scientists suggest that it might be more transmissible as compared to other Covid variants even though the symptoms being reported so far are mild.
Will The Current Vaccines Work Against Omicron?
South African scientists were the first to detect the new variant and report it to the WHO. Ever since it was announced to the public, scientists in South Africa and other parts of the world are racing against time to evaluate whether the current vaccines are effective against Omicron or if we need to develop new vaccines to tackle it.
According to WHO, vaccines remain effective against severe illness and death. However, because the variant is still fairly new, scientists and researchers around the world are trying to get the full picture and understand the new variant and how it behaves. Since it is heavily mutated, it might be different in how it behaves and changes in a patient’s body. Studies are underway and we’ll hopefully know more soon.
Professor Penny Moore working with the NICD and the University of Witwatersrand states, “pseudoviruses” – “harmless, non-replicating viruses used to model coronavirus variants – will be engineered to carry Omicron’s mutations.” She added, “these will then be exposed to antibody-carrying blood plasma from vaccinated people and those who have recovered from Covid infection to see if they neutralise the virus.” However, introducing “pseudoviruses” will not be as simple because the virus carries several mutations. “It will take some time to introduce so many mutations,” Moore further stated. The results are expected to come back in two weeks, which will give insight into how well the current vaccines can work against Omicron or if there is a need to develop a new vaccine. (Guardian)
Do We Need A New Vaccine For Omicron?
Vaccine manufacturers have already started working on vaccines against Omicron. Pfizer is currently working on a vaccine that specifically targets Omicron, in case the existing vaccines prove less efficacious against it. Johnson & Johnson is also “pursuing an Omicron-specific variant vaccine and will progress it as needed.” Similarly, Moderna is working on a booster shot against the newly emerged virus strain. (The News International)
Countries Affected By Omicron So Far
Omicron, first found in South Africa, is spreading rapidly and has already hit several countries across the globe. The list of countries that have reported to have found at least one case of Omicron includes:
- Australia: 2 cases
- Italy: 1 case
- Austria: 1 case
- Belgium: 1 case
- Botswana: 19 cases
- Czech Republic: 1 case
- Canada: 3 cases
- Germany: 3 cases
- Hong Kong: 3 cases
- Denmark: 2 cases
- Israel: 1 case
- Portugal: 13 cases
- Netherlands: 13 cases
- Spain: 1 case
- United Kingdom: 9 cases
- Switzerland: 1 case
- South Africa: 77 cases
Countries Imposing Travel Ban
Many countries have started closing their borders for people traveling from countries with higher risks of detecting Omicron, especially South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia, & Mozambique. The list is increasing with each passing day. It includes Angola, Australia, China, Brazil, Canada, HongKong, Eygpt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Maldives, Malta, Morocco, Netherlands, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, UAE, UK & US.
Has It Reached Pakistan?
Although the new variant has not yet reached Pakistan, National Command and Operations Center (NCOC) chief Asad Umar and the Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health, Dr. Faisal Sultan, during a press conference stated that Pakistan only has weeks to prepare for the deadly new covid variant and it is inevitable that it reaches Pakistan. They also urged the citizens to get vaccinated to ensure proper defense against Omicron.
Omnicron & Its Repurcussions
Omicron has already started to take a toll on the workings of the world. Its repercussions are being greatly felt throughout the world.
ICC called off the ongoing Women’s Cricket World Cup because of Omicron and the travel restrictions countries are imposing on the host country, Zimbabwe. “We are incredibly disappointed to have to cancel the remainder of this event but with travel restrictions from a number of African countries being imposed at such short notice, there was a serious risk that teams would be unable to return home,” stated ICC Head Of Events, Chris Tetley (The News International). Moreover, the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial conference scheduled to be held from 30th November till 3rd December was postponed due also to the emergence of the new Covid variant.
Updates related to the Omicron virus are a developing story and we will keep you updated as more information is revealed. Till then, follow SOPs and stay safe!