It is no news, we all have experienced the deeply-felt effect of the coronavirus pandemic. The paragraphs almost write themselves. It has been running rampage since 2019, and just as the world thinks they are about to get a breather, other more sinister variants just emerge. There has been the alpha, beta, gamma, epsilon, eta, kappa, mu, delta, omicron variants. Going at this rate, we might need to find the variants in another alphabet, because they will soon exhaust the Greek ones.
The variants differ in their clinical importance, with the delta and omicron ranking as currently the most clinically important ones.
The delta variant emerged in the summer of 2021, the delta variant had acquired mutations that enabled it to spread exceedingly fast and to evade the body’s immune defenses. The first vaccine created were effective against this variant though not potent as they were on the initial variants.
On November 26th, 2021, the WHO officially recognized a new variant, omicron, tagged variant B 1.1.529, and admitted that it was a ‘variant of concern’
The knowledge on this new variant is evolving, but what we know so far is that it has the same symptoms as the preceding variants, but milder. It is reportedly more transmissible than the other variants. It could affect people already vaccinated. However, more data is needed to ascertain if reinfection and breakthrough infection are indeed serious.
To many it may seem like it is all ‘downhill’ from here: episodes of lockdown, travel bans, more shots, and the like will become the new normal in no time. But is there a silver lining to this cloud? Perhaps!
Can the omicron variant offer us a way out?
In a very weird way, the omicron variant could be the best thing that happened to humankind since the inception of the corona. Surprised? Let’s get down to it then.
Researches on the blood of those infected by omicron conducted by Dr. Alex Sigal [one of the lead researchers and virologists at the African Research Institute Durban, South Africa] and his team revealed that the omicron can evade both antibodies and vaccines. Unsurprisingly, that explained why people who were vaccinated could still come down with this new strain.
Furthermore, these experiments revealed that the affected had antibodies that could help ward off infection by other variants. In other words, if omicron is left to overtake other lethal variants it could make the world safer as there would be lesser mortality and morbidity.
Dr. Alex Sigal commented, “Maybe pushing out the delta variant is a good thing, we are looking for something we can live with more easily and that will disrupt us less than the previous variants”
In essence, the relationship between the omicron variant and other lethal variants is like a ‘see-saw’: while one is waning the other is waxing. Dr. Nathan Grubaugh, a renowned epidemiologist at Yale school of public health confirmed this thesis by close observation of the pattern of infection in Connecticut. He described omicron as ‘exponentially rising’ while delta variant ‘falls’ and concluded ‘omicron is outcompeting delta for susceptible individuals, leaving them less susceptible to the delta in the aftermath, and driving down delta cases’.
Dr. Sigal conducted a fresh experiment on 13 persons who recently recovered from omicron infection, They discovered that the patients had developed antibodies that were potent against omicron variant as well as delta variants. This result contrasts the earlier results where patients who had recently recovered from delta variants had antibodies against delta but had little to no potency against omicron.
While I will like everyone to sleep safe in the knowledge that omicron is doing the needful, there are still a lot of foreseeable and unforeseeable drawbacks. A few include: it won’t be scientifically sound to make projections from the data gotten from just 13 persons in conditions that might differ from the rest of the world population.
Another pitfall in this thesis is that there is every possibility that the omicron variant will mutate to another more sinister strain. This evolution of coronavirus is unlikely to hit the brakes at the omicron, natural selection will spawn a strain that can easily evade prior vaccination and antibodies.
On that note, Dr. Carl Pearson [epidemiologist at the London school of hygiene and tropical medicine] predicts three different possibilities based on data we can garner in the following weeks and months
First, the coronavirus could become seasonal, like the flu, with a different strain now and then.
Or, secondly, the coronavirus could mimic dengue fever with different variants at the same time, which can easily evade the body’s immune defenses.
Or, lastly, one of the variants dominates, and via vaccination, we can easily overcome this infection.
Clinical significance: This Achilles’ heel in the coronavirus offers scientific insight on how to produce a more potent vaccine. But while the scientists are at it, they can drive low the incidence of more lethal variants.
Evidence shows that the omicron vaccine can go a long way to extinguish other variants, but to leave the incidence of omicron to spike unhindered could present us with novel problems. We should approach this subject with extra caution