The World Health Organization (WHO) has sounded alarms by designating a new variant of the SARS CoV-2 as a variant of concern. As cases of the newly found Omicron variant, first detected in Botswana, have already started to show up in other countries, health experts and scientists are gearing up to stem the potential outbreak of a new massive wave of COVID-19 infections.
The emergence of the Omicron variant comes at a time when the world was slowly returning to normalcy on the back of strong vaccination drives across the nations, with some countries even administering booster shots.
What is the Omicron variant?
The B.1.1.529 variant named after the 15th Greek alphabet, Omicron, was first detected in Botswana and then spread into many countries in South Africa’s neighbouring region including Malawi, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia.
The variant was designated a variant of concern due to the startlingly high number of mutations that it carries. The Omicron variant has over 50 mutations, with over 30 of these mutations located in the spike protein of the virus. The spike protein of the SARS CoV-2 virus is the location through which the virus is able to infect human cells and evade the human immune response.
The Delta variant of the virus, which was largely responsible for the deadly second wave in India among other countries, only has two mutations in comparison.
What does it mean for vaccinated individuals?
While the variant has many more mutations than previously witnessed in any other variant of SARS CoV-2, not a lot is known about the effect of these mutations. The mutations on the virus do not automatically make it deadlier than other variants, as mutations have different effects due to the different ways that the mutations react with each other and then the human body.
The WHO has stated that it is not yet clear how the existing generation of COVID-19 vaccines fares against the new variant. More research will be required over the next few weeks to determine the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines against the variant, though many experts suggest that the vaccines will most likely be less effective against the variant than they had been against the initial ‘wild’ variant of SARS CoV-2.
“The new variant of coronavirus reportedly has got more than 30 mutations at the spike protein region and therefore has the potential of developing immune escape mechanisms. As most vaccines (work by) forming antibodies against the spike protein, so many mutations at the spike protein region may lead to a decreased efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines," AIIMS chief Dr Randeep Guleria said.
To what degree the virus will be able to evade the immune response is unknown for now, as scientists race to find out the effects of the numerous mutations of the variant. Early reports have suggested that the virus is more susceptible to reinfecting people. People, who suffered from COVID-19 earlier, may not be as protected against the Omicron variant as they would be against other variants.
Not all bad news
While the virus has numerous mutations, early reports have suggested that the virus induces only mild illnesses and there is no certain knowledge of its comparative transmissibility. While other variants like the Lambda and Mu variants also possessed more mutations than the Delta variant, they were unable to cause large global surges in infection like the latter.
For fully vaccinated individuals, the vaccines along with COVID-19 safety protocols are the best preventive measure against severe infections, complications, death.
The variant could be dangerous for the population that remains unvaccinated, partially vaccinated and vulnerable sections whose vaccination occurred a long time ago. As most of Africa still remains unvaccinated, the Omicron has an easy way to infect many and as such COVID-19 safety protocols must be followed to have the utmost protection against the variant.
At the same time, vaccine manufacturers are already at work to begin the process of tweaking their vaccines to provide effective booster shots against the new variant.