A new COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.529 was reported in South Africa on November 24, 2021. It was named the Omicron variant by the World health organization. The omicron variant has also been designated as a variant of concern by the WHO. This decision was based on the fact that this variant contains several mutations and it may have an impact on its transmissibility, severity of the disease caused by it, and its response to vaccines and treatments.
Mutations in the Omicron variant
In the Omicron variant, there are at least 30 mutations in its spike protein. This protein is responsible for the virus’s infectivity and its responsiveness to vaccines. Considering this, scientists are concerned about the number of mutations the Omicron variant has developed and the short period of time in which these changes have occurred. Scientists are currently trying to understand how the new variant developed so many mutations in such a short period of time.
According to the WHO and European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the omicron variant cases have been reported in 57 countries till now. Globally, 1458 cases of Omicron variant have been reported so far. The majority of the cases have been reported in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Up till now, 360 cases have been reported in South Africa and 437 cases have been reported in the United Kingdom.
Omicron variant in the US
In the United States, 40 cases of Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 have been reported so far. Cases of the Omicron variant have been reported in 19 U.S states till now. The numbers are expected to rise in the coming weeks and the situation will become more clear as the research data becomes available and is analyzed.
Many countries are taking increased precaution in battling with the Omicron variant as there is no clear scientific understanding about its transmissibility, severity of disease, and response to treatments and vaccines.
Considering the global situation and its impact on the US, many new measures are being announced by the U.S Government to tackle this variant. These measures include tightening testing for travelers, increasing vaccination, importing surveillance for the Omicron variant, and steering research in the direction of understanding the viral characteristics of the Omicron variant. Also, President Biden has announced a new plan to battle the current situation against COVID-19 including the Omicron variant. This plan includes new measures for travelers, enhanced vaccination, preparation for every scenario, and ensuring workplace safety. President Biden also emphasized continued commitment to global vaccination efforts.
Spread of the Omicron variant
There is ongoing research to understand the transmissibility of the omicron variant and the severity of the disease caused by it. According to the WHO, it is not clear yet what kind of disease is caused by the Omicron variant and how transmissible it is. It may become clear as further studies are conducted and there is conclusive evidence to clarify it.
About the effectiveness of vaccines, early evidence suggested that there may be increased chances of infection with the Omicron variant but there is a need for more studies to reach scientific conclusions. According to the WHO, current vaccines are effective against severe disease but it is not clear how effective they are against the Omicron variant.
Effectiveness of diagnostic tests
The world health organization’s update on the Omicron variant suggests that PCR tests can detect the Omicron variant but there is ongoing research about other types of tests like rapid antigen tests. Additionally, it is yet to be found out if the available treatments for severe COVID-19 are also effective against the Omicron variant.
With time and increasing scientific evidence, the different issues like transmissibility, the severity of disease, responsiveness to vaccines and treatments, and the ability of the tests to detect this variant will become clear.
Currently, the WHO recommends similar personal protective measures for the Omicron variant as that of other variants. The WHO recommends getting vaccinated, maintaining social distancing, and using masks to protect oneself. Also, the recommendations advise people to avoid overcrowded situations and keep their hands clean.
Omicron Variant: What you need to know, Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/omicron-variant.html
Update on Omicron, World health organization, Accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/28-11-2021-update-on-omicron
How the omicron variant got so many scary mutations so quickly, Scientific American, Accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-omicron-variant-got-so-many-scary-mutations-so-quickly/
President Biden announces new actions to protect American people against the delta and omicron variants as we battle covid 19, Whitehouse statement release, Accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/02/fact-sheet-president-biden-announces-new-actions-to-protect-americans-against-the-delta-and-omicron-variants-as-we-battle-covid-19-this-winter/
Covid News: the U.S. to Tighten Testing for Travelers Amid Omicron Worries, The NY Times, Accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/11/30/world/omicron-variant-covid
Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19, World health organization, Accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/weekly-epidemiological-update-on-covid-19—7-december-2021