Omicron: What You Need to Know About the New Variant

Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

A new COVID-19 variant labeled 'Omicron' was first detected in South Africa on November 9. (Image: via twenty20photos)

A new Covid-19 variant labeled “Omicron” was first detected in South Africa on November 9.

Since its detection in South Africa, the new variant Omicron has spread to more than two dozen countries, including Hong Kong, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia, the UK, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea.

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The United States has also confirmed its first known Omicron infection in a fully vaccinated person in California who had traveled to South Africa, with additional cases confirmed in New York, California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Hawaii.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, the infected person was fully vaccinated, but hadn’t received a booster shot. The Biden administration urged vaccinated people to get booster shots after their initial doses.

Omicron, a ‘Variant of Concern’

The World Health Organisation declared Omicron a “Variant of Concern” and several countries imposed travel bans against South Africa. Amid the new variant’s fear, countries began stepping up testing, vaccinations, and restrictions.

Compared to other variants, it appears to be much more contagious and has about 30 mutations in its spike protein compared to Delta with only 13 mutations. Delta has already wreaked havoc around the world. This new variant seems to be far more contagious. 

WHO officials also said that preliminary evidence suggests Omicron also poses a higher risk of reinfection, compared to other variants of concern.

However, one good thing to note is that medical professionals are saying that so far Omicron is not too virulent. Professor Schoub, the head of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines and a top virologist, says so far the Omicron variant has only been associated with mild to moderate illness, with no reports of death yet, but it is too early to predict its real impact.

Border closings

So far, Australia has closed its borders to non-Australian citizens from Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Malawi. Returning citizens who have been in those countries or transited through will be required to undergo hotel quarantine for 14 days. Countries in Europe, Japan, Asia, the U.S., and the UK have all closed borders to arrivals from South Africa.

However, some experts, such as Professor Schoub, say that closing borders are not going to help with containing this variant because it probably already pre-existed in some countries but is simply not yet detected. Now, as the variant has been identified and sequenced, these countries will know what to look for so Omicron will come up more often.

Doctor with a syringe needle in a vaccine bottle.
How resistant is Omicron to the current covid-19 vaccine? (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

How resistant is Omicron to current COVID-19 vaccines?

Now, the question that everyone is concerned about is how resistant is Omicron to current COVID-19 vaccines?

Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 at the University of Cambridge, told Channel 9 that the data so far suggest the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” but she said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known and it would take several weeks to do the necessary lab tests to determine if current coronavirus vaccines are still effective against the new variant.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said he does not believe the variant will create a situation where “vaccines will be rendered useless.”

Moderna has already begun making a booster to target Omicron. AstraZeneca also said it was looking to understand the impact Omicron has on its vaccine. Both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are also investigating the impact of the variant on their shots, with data expected within the next couple of weeks.

There are still a few positive notes. First, Omicron has been detected quite early thanks to the South African authorities; second, unlike other variants, it can be detected in a PCR test quite quickly. Third, the world is now well-prepped for dealing with a pandemic where COVID-safe restrictions can be turned up or down quite readily. And without a doubt, there will be new vaccines and boosters coming out soon to deal with Omicron.

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