Omicron: Why is this COVID-19 variant concerning?

Omicron – The latest COVID – 19 variant of concern

A new variant of the SARS – CoV – 2 virus: B.1.1.529 was recently detected in South Africa on 8 November 2021. This variant was reported to the WHO on 24 November 2021 and on 26 November 2021. Omicron is designated as a variant of concern (VOC). The WHO has named this variant Omicron. Despite it being a relatively new strain, it has raised concerns among scientists. 1 This virus has shown several mutations. These are believed to alter the way it behaves and the severity of the illness it causes. Here is a summary of what is currently known about this virus.

How is it different from the earlier strains?

  • Researchers in South Africa are conducting studies from other parts of the world. The aim is to uncover the various aspects of the Omicron variant. However, based on preliminary evidence, it has been shown that the Omicron variant has several spike protein mutations. This feature sets it apart from the other existing variants. 
  • Some of these mutations are associated with concerning characteristics, including an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron. While the rates of reinfection with Omicron are believed to be higher when compared to the other variants, there is limited information on this aspect.
  • More information on this aspect will be made available in the coming weeks, which will aid in a better understanding of the virus.

Symptoms of Omicron infections

Doctors in South Africa who first raised the alarm over this strain have described the COVID symptoms associated with this virus to be ‘extremely mild.’ Some of the commonly observed symptoms are :

  • Dry coughs
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Body aches and pain
  • Mild headache
  • Scratchy throat
  • Extreme fatigue

The patients affected so far have been in their 20s and 30s, and this age group is typically associated with milder COVID – 19 symptoms in any case. However, the South African doctors have warned that older people who get infected by this variant could develop more severe symptoms.

The severity of the disease :

Preliminary data suggest that the rates of hospitalizations in South Africa have risen drastically in the regions with the most significant number of COVID – positive cases. This observation was made shortly after discovering the Omicron variant, but there is no proper evidence that proves that Omicron is responsible for the increased hospitalization rates. Moreover, the people affected to date have only manifested mild symptoms. Most of them are university students, and a heterogeneous population comprising different age groups has not yet been affected by this variant. In short, we cannot conclude the severity of the disease based on these initial observations alone, and several days or weeks are needed to understand this aspect exactly. Read Human Coronavirus: Outbreak and Prevention

Treatment

  • The WHO is currently working with its partners to comprehend the effectiveness of the existing medicines and vaccines against Omicron infections. 
  • Existing COVID – 19 countermeasures such as corticosteroids and IL6 receptor blockers are beneficial in treating severe disease.
  • The exact treatment for Omicron infections is yet to be ascertained, owing to the limited information available on the severity of the disease caused by the virus.
  • It is also unclear about the ability of the Omicron virus to overcome the previous infection immunity or COVID – 19 immunizations. Yet despite this lack of information, health specialists from across the globe have warned people to exercise caution.
  • Studies have not yet been conducted to determine the effectiveness of the existing COVID – 19 drugs against the Omicron variant. But based on lab studies, scientists believe that drugs that target the spike protein of the virus could work well against this variant. Can ribavirin be used to treat corona virus?

Tests for diagnosis :

Currently used tests such as the PCR tests effectively detect this variant. Besides this, scientists are now conducting studies to check if this variant impacts other types of tests, such as the rapid antigen detection tests.

Claims of scientists

AIIMS chief scientist Dr. Randeep Guleria’s explanation on Omicron 

Dr. Guleria has stated that over 30 mutations in the spike protein region of the virus have been reported to date, which has assisted the virus in developing an immune escape mechanism. The AIIMS chief revealed that all the existing vaccines against COVID – 19 might be less effective against this variant. His reasoning behind this claim is that the COVID – 19 vaccines target the spike protein, which is mutated in the Omicron variant. He has also reiterated the need to evaluate the existing vaccines critically and requested everyone to follow COVID – appropriate behavior to avoid any mishaps religiously. [6,8]

Comments by Dr. Samiran Panda, the Head of Epidemiology and Diseases Division, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)

Dr. Samiran Panda has revealed that the mutations observed in the Omicron variant have offered it some structural advantages. The structural changes observed in this variant are believed to assist it in “adhering to the same cellular receptors with increased affinity or transmission.” He has also added that the vaccines directed towards the spike protein of the virus might not be effective against this variant and emphasized the need for modifying the mRNA vaccines that act via this mechanism. [8]

Claims by Dr. Rakesh Mishra, former Chief of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR)

Dr. Mishra has stated that the Indian vaccine will remain effective against this variant, but the chances of its spread are very high. He added that while only a few cases were detected in the past week, all of them have not been sequenced. Therefore, it cannot ascertain the exact number of cases. According to him, the major problem with this infection is that it is asymptomatic in about 70 – 80 percent of the people it affects. Due to this, people would often confuse it with the common cold as there is no loss of smell or oxygen problem associated with Omicron infection. He furthermore claimed that many people may have already contracted this virus and that the infection will be highly prevalent in all the major cities of India, where people have been traveling in the past couple of weeks. [7]

Comments by Dr. Anurag Agarwal, Director at CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology

India’s top genomic sequencing expert, Dr. Anurag Agarwal, has made an alarming claim stating that the mutant strain, Omicron, has the potential to create a 3rd wave of COVID in India. He added that from the data collected, it has been established that this variant has potent immune escape mechanisms, but this does not necessarily mean that this variant is more fatal than the existing ones.

Despite this warning, he has stressed the need to get the entire population vaccinated at the earliest, referring to the small population of Indians who have not been vaccinated to date. 

Furthermore, he has also called for a booster dose for the healthcare workers to offer added protection to these individuals. Besides these, he also revealed that a significant fraction of the Indian population has the best immunity against the COVID virus as they have hybrid immunity and anticipates the severity of the disease to be low among them. [9]

WHO’s chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan’s comments on Omicron infection

The WHO’s chief scientist has requested everyone to be prepared, cautious, and not panic about the new variant of the SARS – CoV – 2 viruses. She stated that although the new variant appears to be more transmissible, much remains unknown about this variant. Per the current evidence, she noted that the Omicron variant is believed to cause three times more infections than previously experienced in South Africa. It indicates that this variant can overcome some of the natural immunity from previous infections.

Despite this, most people are not getting sick, and Dr. Swaminathan has added this could mean that the vaccines are still providing protection.

She claimed that the WHO is looking at this aspect regarding the need for a booster dose. It can make no concluding statement about the variant as a whole. Albeit this, the WHO has strongly urged the countries to boost the healthcare capacity and vaccinate the people as soon as possible to avoid a surge of Omicron infections. [10]

Concluding remark :

Omicron was first spotted in southern Africa in November 2021, but this virus has spread to at least 24 countries within a few weeks. This rapid transmission had led to the WHO naming it a “variant of concern,” but much is yet to be known about this virus. Following this designation, the WHO has recommended that the countries maintain effective public health measures to reduce COVID – 19 circulation overall and requested individuals to follow appropriate COVID – 19 behaviors. Studies are currently underway to uncover the effectiveness of the existing therapeutic approaches against this variant. These are expected to understand the virus in the coming weeks better.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *