In late November 2021, scientists in South Africa raised the alarm on a new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus tagged as B.1.1.529. The new strain showed more than 50 mutations, including 32 on the spike protein and 26 of which were not found in other strains.
WHO named the mutant Omicron and designated it as a VOC or Variety of Concern. Barely within weeks of its detection, the mutant strain spread like wildfire and became a household name in over 50 countries across the globe.
Our article explores all the facts about the Omicron variant and its role in the pandemic.
Omicron- An Up-close Look Into The New Variant
WHO christened each emerging variant of the coronavirus with the Greek alphabets Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and so on. WHO chose to go with the Greek alphabet to make it easy for the non-scientific community to identify the variants. In picking the name Omicron, WHO has apparently skipped the next two alphabets, Nu and Xi for these reasons:
- Nu could be confused with the word "New."
- Xi is a common surname
Also Read: Covid Testing Options
As per its best practices, WHO avoids using names that cause any offence to cultural, regional, or ethnic groups. So, the next name in line, Omicron was used for the new variant.
On November 26th, 2021, WHO designated Omicron as a Variant of Concern, clubbing it with four other variants on the list. Delta, the last variant designated as a VoC, was the reason behind the ferocious second pandemic wave that cost millions of lives.
WHO considers several criteria before declaring a new strain as a Variant of Concern. The criteria include:
- An increase in Covid-19 transmissibility or a detrimental change in its epidemiology
- An increase in virulence or a change in the clinical presentation of the disease.
- A decline in the effectiveness of public health and measures such as diagnostics, therapies, and vaccines
WHO declared Omicron as a VoC based on:
- Observed mutation
- Increased transmission
- Evasion of immunity
- Increased risk of reinfections
However, the evidence gathered about immunity evasion and increased remission remains inconclusive.
That said, the initial data about the virus revealed increased transmissibility compared to other variants, including Delta. Here is a comparative example to understand the transmissibility of the Omicron variant:
In less than three weeks of its detection, Omicron became the cause for a huge number of cases in Houston Methodist Hospital.By comparison, the Delta variant took more than three months to surpass 80% of the total cases after initial detection. It hasn't taken long for researchers to discover that Omicron is about 2.7 to 3.7 times times more infectious than Delta, even in vaccinated people.
Symptoms & Disease Severity in Omicron
From what we know to date, Omicron is less severe, although we need more data to confirm this fact. We do not have conclusive evidence to suggest that Omicron differs from other variants in terms of symptoms and severity.
While listing the symptoms, it is important to keep in mind one fact: Whether it is Omicron or any other variant, we are still talking about the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Therefore, the symptoms will be similar, although some will be more prominent in one strain versus another.
According to health experts, the following symptoms are most common among patients with Omicron:
- Scratchy throat
- Extreme fatigue
- Cough, congestion, or runny nose
- High body temperature
- Body pain
Patients who test positive suffer from mild symptoms for a few days and recover without hospitalisation. Compelling evidence from a recently published study reveals that the incidences of hospitalisation are lower with Omicron than with Delta.
Who is at risk with Omicron infection? Anyone can get infected with the Omicron variant. However, people in the high-risk category include those with chronic illnesses and those who are immune-compromised. People who have already been infected with Covid-19 are also at risk of contracting the Omicron variant.
Omicron Variant Detection & Future Possibilities
Certain Reverse Transcription- Polymerase Chain Reaction tests (RT-PCR) are being used worldwide to detect the Omicron variant. Unlike other SARS-CoV-2 variants that require genetic sequencing for detection, RT-PCR seems to work for Omicron.
RT-PCR tests detect specific genes such as Spike (S), Nucleocapdis (N), and Enveloped (E) to confirm the presence of the virus. However, detection of the Omicron variant is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. Since the S gene in Omicron is heavily mutated, some primers may indicate an absence of the S gene or "S gene drop out."
The ability of an RT-PCR test kit to detect the Omicron variant largely depends on the primers or the chemical constituents used in the test. Because of this inconclusiveness, it is not ideal to rely only on RT-PCR to determine the presence of Omicron. A genome sequencing process is necessary for further confirmation.
So, what can we expect from the Omicron variant in the upcoming months?
The third pandemic wave is sweeping across many countries, thanks to this variant, even as we discuss this question. Scientists rely on research-based models to speculate how the variant will change in the near future. However, all these models are based on assumptions. What we need is conclusive, fool-proof evidence to understand more about Omicron.
Right now, the exploding surge in cases highlights the variant's transmissibility and immunity evasion. Medical experts warn that:
- Omicron can push hospitals to their limits, despite its milder severity
- A smaller fraction of the cases may require hospitalisation
- The surge in cases can result in more numbers of seriously ill patients
With the SARS-CoV-2 virus, these variables can change in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, the Covid-19 vaccines are the only hopeful prospect in this grim situation. To fortify our wall of defence against Omicron and other emerging variants, we need:
- Social distancing and masking
- Hygiene and safety practices
- Vaccination and boosters
- Rigorous testing
- Self-isolation if infected
- Timely medical help
Vaccines & Boosters: Our Tools To Fight Covid-19
Vaccines came as a saving grace when the world was reeling from the worst health crisis of the century. There is no evidence that suggests vaccine inefficacy. However, experts state that the mutations appearing in the Spike gene may decrease the effectiveness of the existing vaccines. Yet, why take the risk when you have a solution at hand? Vaccines increase your cellular immunity and help you counteract infections.
Besides, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is unlike anything we've encountered. It may take us years to understand this highly unpredictable organism. And medical experts warn that those who are unvaccinated are twice as likely to get infected with any variant of the virus. So, get vaccinated asap!
Even if you are vaccinated, now's the time to get your booster. Remember that prevention is the key to extending your protection against the Omicron variant. Still unsure about the importance of Covid-19 vaccines? We urge you to read only trusted information or talk to your doctor to gain clarity on the issue.
Our team at Anderson Diagnostics is also ready to help you with any queries regarding the Covid-19 safety measures and tests. Do reach out to us!