Omicron (aka B.1.1.529) a variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was first reported on 24 November 2021 from South Africa to the World Health Organization (WHO). Merely two days later, the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (or TAG-VE) labelled it as a ‘Variant of Concern’ (VOC) and named it "Omicron", the fifteenth letter in the Greek alphabet. Delta is the only other variant to be designated as the Variant of Concern.
According to the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom, 77 countries (as of 14th - December) across the globe have declared cases of Omicron, however it is likely to be present in many more countries even if it is not detected there yet. The virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate not yet identified with other variants. Many people may brush off Omicron, assuming it results in a less severe Covid condition, but the steep number of Omicron cases can overwhelm the health system. Various researchers around the world are fact-finding & conducting investigations for understanding the various aspects of Omicron. WHO emphasized that at this stage only insufficient data is at hand on its clinical severity, hence making it “challenging to assess any changes in disease severity with the Omicron variant”.
Here is a brief synopsis according to WHO of what is currently known about Omicron.
The severity of disease: Early infections announced were among university students (younger people tend to have the less severe condition) but comprehending the severity of this variant can take days, to several weeks. Therefore, currently, it’s not clear if contracting Omicron causes a more severe Covid condition when compared to other variant infections (including Delta).
Effectiveness of Previous SARS-CoV-2 infection: Introductory clues imply that there can be an enhanced risk of re-infection with Omicron (i.e., individuals previously infected with COVID-19 can again get re-infected more readily with Omicron) when compared to other VOC. We hope to see concrete information regarding this in the coming days and weeks.
Transmissibility: It’s not exactly clear if Omicron easily spreads from person to person when compared to the Delta variant. There is a rise in the number of people testing positive for the Omicron variant in South Africa, but virus-related research is still taking place to comprehend if the reason is Omicron or whether it’s due to some other factors.
Effectiveness of vaccines: WHO is currently researching to grasp the potential impact of the Omicron variant on our existing countermeasures. Vaccines have been proven effective against severe Covid infections including those caused by the dominant Delta variant.
Effectiveness of current treatments: IL6 Receptor Blockers and Corticosteroids are useful for managing patients with severe COVID-19 condition. Other treatments are being evaluated to ascertain if they are as potent given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.
Effectiveness of current tests: The recognized & accepted PCR tests continue to dig out Covid infections, including the one with the Omicron variant, just like they do with other variants.
Battle of the Variants: Omicron vs. Delta
As Omicron cases soar the world over, the latest research shows that the SARS-CoV-2 variant proliferates more rapidly in tissues lining airway passages rather than those in lungs, unlike the Delta variant. As per the research conducted by the University of Hong Kong, Omicron replicates itself around 70 times faster in bronchus tissues, which can accelerate its person-to-person spread. To understand how different the Omicron variant from the Delta variant is, please read on as we compare the two virus mutations that have broken out as the global Variants of Concern.
Origin: The Omicron variant on 11th November was first found in Botswana and after three days in South Africa. The Delta variant was first found in India in December 2020 as it spread briskly through India before reaching the UK and the USA. As per Yale Medicine, the Delta variant is at this stage the leading SARS CoV-2 variant, making up more than 99% of Covid-19 cases.
The Difference in Mutations: Omicron variant’s gene sequencing unveiled that it had more mutations (43 mutations in the spike proteins) than the Delta variant (18 mutations) of Covid-19. The big number of mutations does not naturally indicate that these variations are more lethal, but plainly states that the virus is further adapted to humankind by bringing forth another variant.
Vaccine Effectiveness: Around the world, the Delta variant has been effectively countered by vaccines, however, nothing can be said about the Omicron variant as yet. This is still being researched however it’s quite possible that the Omicron variant can make vaccines less potent. The reason for this concern is Omicron shares several key mutations with the previous two variants - Beta and Gamma, which made them impervious to vaccines.
Global Response: The Delta variant caused alarming casualties due to a lack of readiness in countering the sudden mutation. The Delta variant was found in India in December 2020, reaching its peak in May. The immunity against the Delta variant was very low as most of the population was unvaccinated.
However, the global response has been swift in the case of Omicron with the WHO asserting it a variant of Concern just within two days of its detection. With a growing number of individuals being vaccinated, the immunity has been up in contrast to when the Delta outbreak struck. Also, individuals who were tested positive for Delta and recuperated have developed antibodies to fight against SARS-CoV-2. The jury is still out on how fatal the Omicron variant is, it cannot be taken lightly as the reports coming out from the UK prove that this variant is hospitalizing and killing people. The UK reported a jump of 10,000 Omicron cases in 24 hours and deaths, that rose to 7.
Pretty much everything remains under speculation when it comes to Omicron. While many authorities have said that Omicron results in mild infections, the latest reports suggest otherwise. Thus, staying mindful of virus unpredictability, one has to ensure that all preventive measures are taken. Wearing your face mask, maintaining social distance (one meter), and pursuing proper hand hygiene are vital during the stressful times ahead. Getting your Covid vaccine shots is the most necessary right now. And all those who had their two doses, please keep an eye out for the Omicron vaccine boosters. The holiday season is at our doors, but so is the virus. Stay safe!