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Decoding Omicron (B.1.1.529): The New COVID-19 Variant

Dr. Nikhil Eric Saldanha

November 30, 2021

The world health infrastructure is still recovering from the ravages of the early strains of Covid-19, and amidst this, scientists have discovered a new strain. On November 24, 2021, a new variant of SARS-COV-2 was reported to the World Health Organization from Botswana, South Africa named Omicron. In recent weeks, South Africa observed a sudden spike in the reported cases.

It is the third instance in which the country experienced a steep increase in the number of reported cases. WHO described this variant as a concern and adds that there are several studies that are presently underway to determine the nature of the variant. The organization assures to share the findings of these studies as they become available

The global organisation stated it as a ‘Variety of Concern’, indicating that it is likely to be highly transmissible and potentially replace the dominant Delta variant. Since the discovery of this new strain, it has fuelled relentless waves of infection. So let’s decode the why’s and how’s of this new heavily mutated strain SARS-CoV-2.

What is Omicron?

The WHO has labelled this new variant (B.1.1.529) as a variety of concern (VOC) and named it Omicron.

The new COVID variant has mutated several times to become far more infectious than previous varieties of COVID. South Africa is experiencing an increase in reported cases in almost all of its provinces. 

Diagnosis, Signs and Symptoms

Several labs confirm that the current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics may continue to detect this variant. However, there are several studies underway, and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with the member states and to the public. But, as per initial findings, the global body has suggested that the super strain could pose more significant risks than the delta variant.

Due to health infrastructure designed to combat COVID, detection of the omicron will be easier than the initial waves of COVID.

A WHO update says that the widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection with omicron. However studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests. 

As per South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), no unusual symptoms are observed among the reported cases infected with the B.1.1.529 variant. However, a doctor in South Africa says that the symptoms of omicron are mild. Dr Angelique Coetzee (South African Medical Association) says that the symptoms are different from the Delta variant in some patients. Patients predominantly suffer from mild muscle aches, scratchy throat and dry cough.

The WHO report suggests that while the Omicron might be as transmissible as the Delta variant or worse – it has no evidence to be sure. Luckily, the Omicron does not appear to have more severe disease symptoms than previous variants.

However, the number of hospitalised patients is increasing in South Africa. But according to WHO, it can be due to the sudden surge in the number of infected patients. Any other claim is subject to further studies and observations.  

Omicron: The Global Panic

The presence of multiple spike protein mutations and preliminary analysis suggests the new strain is highly infectious and transmissible.

A new COVID variant hinting at another wave has created a new panic in the global community. The panic has been exacerbated by some countries that have imposed a preemptive lockdown. In addition, the travel restrictions, the mutating nature of this variant and the terrifying thoughts of the damage done by COVID in the last two years are adding to the stress and panic worldwide.

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  • South Africa has been reporting a four-fold increase in new cases after the emergence of Omicron (B.1.1.529.)
  • Scientists from various other countries, including the US, have confirmed its presence. 
  • The Australian health authorities have confirmed two cases of the new strain.
  • In addition, there are two confirmed cases in Hong Kong and one each in Israel and Belgium. Three others are suspected to be carrying the strain in Israel.
  • Omicron has now touched more than 16 countries.
  • No confirmed case in the US so far. However, the health experts suspect the presence of an infected patient somewhere in the country. 

Effect of the panic 

  • Many countries, including the United States, have imposed a travel ban on African countries due to the advent of omicron.
  • The 27-nation European Union has suspended air travel from southern Africa. 

Omicron: The current scenario in India

There are no confirmed cases in the country so far. However, Karnataka suspects that it might have found a case of Omicron as they have isolated a variant not consistent with the delta COVID virus the variant is not matching the delta variant. Maharashtra is also keeping a close watch on some of the cases. 

However, the government and health authorities have come into action. Central and state governments are keeping a close eye on any developments in this regard. 

  • The Centre has directed all states and Union Territories to focus on intensive containment, active surveillance, enhanced testing, hotspots monitoring, and increased vaccination coverage and augmentation of health infrastructure.
  • The Health Ministry has issued directions to states. It states that international travellers coming from and transiting through Botswana, South Africa, and Hong Kong must undergo rigorous screening and testing. It is due to multiple cases of Covid-19 variant B.1.1.529 reported in these countries.
  • The states will now have to send the samples of travellers turning positive to designated labs of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium (INSACOG). It tracks and monitors the emergence and transmission of Covid-19 variants of concerns and variants of interests in India.
  • Also, state surveillance officers will have to coordinate with the INSACOG labs and undertake test-track-treat to prevent the spread of the variant and formation of clusters of cases.

Vaccine Efficacy

Decoding Omicron (B.1.1.529): The New COVID-19 Variant

Scientists have not yet established a direct linkage to any surge due to omicron’s uncertain epidemiological and clinical correlation. Yet, South Africa has started to examine the immune escape potential and a real-time system to monitor hospitalization and the outcome associated with B.1.1.529 in a laboratory setting. It will help indicate the performance of current vaccines, and the data will reveal the severity of the disease caused due to mutation or the effect on the performance of therapeutic medicines.

As per some experts, the virus carries 50 mutations in all, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone. Spike protein is the SARS-CoV-2 protein that recognizes host cells and targets the body’s immune responses. As per initial reports, this spike protein has decreased the vaccine’s efficiency by 40%. However, the WHO says that there is no evidence proving vaccines’ effectiveness on the new variant. Hence, further research will only help us understand the vaccine efficacy on omicron. 

The Biggest Question: How Do We Stay Protected from Omicron?

To prevent the spread of omicron, we should stay attentive and follow specific guidelines set by the authorities.

You should follow Covid-19 guidelines to break the chain of transmission. Wearing well-fitting masks, sanitising hands and surfaces regularly, following physical distancing, improving the ventilation of indoor spaces, and avoiding crowded areas will help prevent transmission.

According to health experts, vaccination remains critical, primarily to protect high-risk groups from hospitalisation and death. So, getting vaccinated remains a high-value method for preventing COVID.

Thus, it seems prudent to take extra precautions ahead of governmental intervention and practice a personally adequate form of social distancing as we wait for further reports on the virulence of this new mutated strain of the COVID virus. This can be helpful in preventing the transmission of this heavily mutated strain.

About the Author

Dr. Nikhil did Medicine (MBBS) at St. John’s Medical College and then decided to step away to do a Master’s in Health Psychology at the University of Stirling. On the way to that, he has worked with an NGO, Enfold, on teaching sexual health education in schools and colleges to create a healthy foundation for better sexual health in the nation. He has also worked as a medical content editor with Vinformax. He has now been working with HealthifyMe to bring in a renewed user-centric perspective concerning the users' medical conditions and to support the company with more effective digital tools and devices. He hopes to help improve the healthcare scenario in India.

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