What Is Omicron Variant?

The Omicron variant was initially referred to as B.1.1.529, but was later designated as a variant of concern (VOC) by the World Health Organizationbecause 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-stigmatizing label that does not associate new variants with the location where they were first detected. The new variant has been called Omicron.

Omicron Variant
      Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO)       

Omicron variant symptoms

Another noticeable difference between omicron and other coronavirus variants is how quickly the symptoms hit. Fever, sore throat, and fatigue caused by omicron are more likely to show up about three days after a person is infected, whereas symptoms caused by delta, alpha, and others typically emerge about five or six days after infection, Washer says.

Getting sick soon after exposure can help people better pinpoint when and where they became infected. “But it also means that the increase in viral load that’s causing symptoms comes on pretty fast,” Washer says. “And you may be infectious to others even before those symptoms develop.”

Omicron’s shorter incubation period, as it’s called, could lead to new testing guidelines, Roberts points out. Current recommendations advise individuals to wait at least five days after having contact with a COVID-positive individual before taking a test. “They may shorten that to as little as three days after getting exposed just to be sure,” he says.

Omicron variant symptoms milder

What’s becoming clearer, however, is that omicron, while highly contagious, appears to cause more mild, cold-like symptoms. “Many people are presenting with a sore throat, nasal congestion, headache, muscle aches,” Roberts says.

Data collected so far show that individuals infected with omicron are significantly less likely to be hospitalized than those infected with delta, even though hospitalization rates are at an all-time high due to skyrocketing case counts. They’re also less likely to require intensive care. This is not the case for everybody, experts caution. Some patients experience serious symptoms with omicron, like trouble breathing, Washer notes. “We are still seeing people end up on ventilators and having severe disease,” Roberts adds.

Health experts are trying to determine whether omicron’s less severe symptoms are a product of the variant itself or a reflection of a majority-vaccinated population that is better able to blunt some of its worst effects. The vaccine-plus-booster regimen is about 75 percent effective against the symptomatic disease, and protection against severe disease is likely higher, researchers report. Both Roberts and Washer say the majority of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Omicron Variant Precautions

Is there something to be concerned about the Omicron variant?

On the other hand, health experts believe that omicron is likely already spreading silently.

“By a long way, our monitoring in the United States is still not what it should be,” said Julie Swann, a North Carolina State University pandemic modeling and health systems expert. “It’s most likely in the United States,” the researcher argues, “but we’re not sequencing enough samples or testing enough people.”

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Omicron Variant Treatment

According to the WHO, it’s uncertain if omicron infections cause more severe diseases than other types. However, preliminary research suggests that South Africa’s hospitalization rates are increasing.

It’s also unclear how well the virus will overcome previous infection immunity or COVID-19 immunizations to cause a breakthrough infection.

Despite the absence of information, health specialists warn people to exercise caution.

Americans should take this version seriously,” Swann said. “There will be another, even if this one doesn’t turn out to be as bad as we expected.

Facts Of Omicron Variant

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 of numbers in the Gauteng province of South Africa, an urban area containing Pretoria and Johannesburg, in the past two weeks.

These two factors put it quickly on the radar of international monitors, with the chief medical adviser to the UK Health and Security Agency describing the variant as the “most worrying we’ve seen”.

Where did it come from?

Although initially linked to Gauteng, the Omicron variant did not necessarily originate there. The earliest sample showing the variant was collected in Botswana on 11 November 2021. Scientists say that the unusual constellation of mutations suggests it may have emerged during chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, such as an untreated HIV/Aids patient.

Why are scientists worried about it?

The Omicron 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 re-infect – people who have immunity to earlier variants.

Is Omicron Variant 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% 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 for 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 neutralize the new variant. Real-world data on reinfection rates will also give a clearer indication of the extent of any change in immunity.

Scientists do not expect that the Omicron variantwill be entirely unrecognizable to existing antibodies, just that current vaccines may give less protection. So a crucial objective remains to increase vaccination rates, including third doses for at-risk groups.

What about existing drugs?

Scientists expect that recently approved antiviral drugs, such as Merck’s pill, will work as effectively against the new variant, i.e. Omicron variant because these drugs do not target the spike protein – they work by stopping the virus from replicating. However, there is a bigger risk that monoclonal antibodies, such as Regeneron’s treatment, could fail or partially fail because they target parts of the virus that will have mutated.

Will the variant cause more severe Covid?

There is no information yet on whether the Omicron variant leads to a change in Covid symptoms or severity – this is something South African scientists will be closely monitoring. Since there is a lag between infections and more serious illnesses, it will take several weeks before any clear data is available.

At this stage, scientists say there is no strong reason to suspect that the latest variant will be either worse or milder.

Can the vaccines be tweaked and how long could that take?

Yes, teams behind vaccines are already working on updating vaccines with the new spike protein to prepare for an eventuality where a new version might be needed.

A lot of the preparation work for such an update took place when the Beta and Delta variants emerged – although in those cases existing vaccines have held up well. This means research teams were already poised to create new versions of vaccines and have discussed with regulators what additional trials would be required. However, it could still take four to six months before updated vaccines, if required, are widely available.

How likely is it to spread around the world?

So far, the majority of confirmed cases have been in South Africa, with a handful in Botswana and Hong Kong. A further case was detected on Thursday evening in Israel – an individual who had returned from Malawi – and two other cases are suspected in the country.

On Friday, Belgium confirmed it had detected a case in someone who had traveled to Egypt and Turkey.

Nevertheless, given that there is community transmission in southern Africa if there is a transmissibility advantage the new variant is likely to have already spread undetected to other countries.

Previous experience shows travel bans tend to buy time, but, short of taking a zero-Covid approach with hard lockdowns, these measures are unlikely to stop the spread of a new variant entirely.

How Does Omicron Compare to Other Variants?

Because the Omicron variant was discovered fairly recently, several questions have yet to be answered, Mahdee Sobhanie, MD, infectious diseases physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Verywell. This includes the following:

Its transmissibility

The severity of the disease it causes
Whether current vaccines and COVID-19 therapies will hold up against it
Whether it will outcompete the Delta variant

Does Omicron Cause Different Symptoms?

When Delta became the predominant variant, cold-like upper respiratory symptoms became more common, while the loss of taste and smell became less common than before.

“There are also a lot of other factors which have to be taken into consideration when we look at symptoms caused by different COVID variants, such as vaccination status, age, and whether patients have other medical problems that put them at higher risk of developing severe disease,” Sobhanie said.

Like Delta, the Omicron variant can also cause a change in the prevalence or severity of symptoms. However, more data is needed to know for certain.

“Preliminary reports suggest patients infected with the Omicron variant have similar symptoms to other variants of SARS-CoV-2,” Scott Roberts, MD, Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, told Verywell. “There are anecdotal reports of cases being milder and patients having no loss of taste or smell, however, these are anecdotal and should be interpreted with caution until more data is available.”

The New York Times reported that researchers at a major hospital complex in the capital of South Africa found that their COVID-19 patients were much less sick than those they’ve treated in the past. But, as Roberts stated, these reports are still anecdotal.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), early evidence suggests that there may be a higher risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant.2 It may also spread more easily than other variants, including Delta.3

“We do not yet know for certain whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the Delta variant until more data is available,” Roberts said, “However the Omicron cases currently outpacing the Delta cases in parts of South Africa is concerning and indicates this variant is likely more transmissible than other previously recognized variants.”

Every time a virus mutates, there are genetic changes that occur, which explains why different COVID-19 variants have varying symptoms and transmissibility.

“Variants are distinguished by mutations in the genetic code of the virus,” Roberts said. “Some of these mutations can impact the behavior of the virus and impact symptomatology and transmissibility. For example, mutations in the spike protein can impact how well the virus binds to and enters human cells.”

 

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