The virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is prone to change, which is to blame for the emergence of new strains (variants) of the virus. How does this work? Every time the virus infects somebody, it creates a new copy in the infected person. Sometimes, when making a copy of the virus, errors (mutations) occur in its genetic material. In most cases, such errors weaken the virus or do not change its properties. It is rare for such a genetic mutation to make a virus more intelligent. In the case that it does though is when the “potentially worrying” variants (as the World Health Organization labels them) emerge. The latest such mutation of the coronavirus is the Omicron variant.
The first death caused by the new strain in the United Kingdom was confirmed on December 14. That is why Factcheck.bg collected the information that is available about Omicron so far. Here are the facts.
Where are Omicron infections found and how serious are those?
Cases of people infected with the new coronavirus strain have already been detected in 38 countries by December 8, 2021. The new variant is spreading very fast in South Africa, where it was first discovered – more than 8500 cases were registered on December 1, whereas just a few days earlier the recorded active cases are around 3400. In mid-November South Africa reported only a few hundred cases daily. This data gives reason for concern regarding the speed that Omicron is spreading. It has led to some tougher measures in a number of countries around the world, with the USA even banning South Africans from entering the country.
Although the data from South Africa has caused concern around the world, the WHO warns that this data alone is not enough reason to believe that Omicron is significantly more contagious than previous strains of the coronavirus. It is too early to accept the data as reliable and epidemiological studies are already being prepared so that scientists can work with the most reliable information as soon as possible.
How easy is it to get infected with Omicron?
Evidence available to virologists to date suggests that the Omicron variant is more successful in bypassing the immune system. How does this happen?
The mutation in the SARS-CoV-2 virus occurs in the spike protein, the virus’ way into the human cell. A team of scientists in Johannesburg is currently working on laboratory experiments to show how likely it is for Omicron to bypass the immune response of vaccinated people or the ones that have already had COVID-19. So far, they have found that the genetic change in the spike protein between previous strains and Omicron is 32-fold, which means the variant is very likely to be more contagious.
In September this year, a group of virologists at Rockefeller University in New York conducted a study on a virus that does not cause COVID-19, but shares some of the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2. This virus is very similar to the newly found strain Omicron. Scientists are focusing in the virus’ ability to attach the receptor cells in the human body. Their conclusion is that such a mutation would blunt the body’s neutralising antibodies.
What the data shows is that compared to other strains, Omicron is better at re-infecting people who have already had the disease and developed a natural immunity to the virus. Data for this conclusion is described in a study by South African scientists from December 2. However, the study still has not been through peer review and therefore the data cannot be considered completely reliable. High levels of HIV-infected people in Africa should also be borne in mind – the virus blocks the immune system and makes it easier to get infected with COVID-19 or any other virus. Therefore, data from South Africa alone could not give a clear picture of the behaviour of the new variant anywhere in the world. The scarce information on the subject is currently being evaluated, and the WHO is working on epidemiological studies to show how the people infected with Omicron react.
Are the vaccines effective against Omicron?
Information on the effectiveness of vaccines against Omicron is mixed, with some media outlets claiming that mRNA vaccines will not offer stable enough protection against infection unless people get a booster (third) dose.
Moderna said that they are working on a strategy to deal with Omicron, considering it might suppress the immunity granted by their vaccine. Meanwhile, Pfizer-BioNTech announced that they have launched a study on the effectiveness of their vaccine against the new variant. They will also work on a special new booster vaccine that is targeting the Omicron variant. Although an initial study in South Africa showed that a completed 2-dose vaccination cycle with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine does not offer a stable enough protection against Omicron, WHO Emergency director Michael Ryan told AFP he was not worried. According to him, the new strain is no more dangerous than the previous ones and there is no evidence that it will be able to completely surpass the protection build by immunizations.
The Omicron variant has spread rapidly to the United Kingdom with 4713 cases recorded on December 14. On the same day the first death of a patient infected with Omicron was also recorded. According to a preliminary study of those infected with the new variant in the country, British scientists are saying that 2 doses of any vaccine is not enough protection. In the same study, the team of scientists claim that a booster dose will have around 75% effectiveness against Omicron.
The WHO warns that any information on the effectiveness of vaccines against the Omicron variant so far is speculative and immunization remains essential to reducing the risk of sever illness and death for any strain of COVID-19.
Is Omicron going to be the end of the pandemic?
Associate professor Atanas Mangarov was among the first people in Bulgaria to comment publicly – for Eurocom TV, the new variant of the coronavirus. According to him, Omicron is much less likely to cause serious illness or death because it’s much more contagious. Mangarov claims that this will easily lead to herd immunity, which will eventually end the pandemic. Data on how the infection with Omicron is progressing is so far speculative. The scientific journal Nature quotes infectious disease speacialist Muge Cevik from St Andrews University in Scotland who claims that any information about the Omicron variant only causing a mild infection is currently misleading.
Data on mild infections with Omicron so far are coming mainly from South Africa. However, in order to make general assumptions about Omicron, some variables must be taken into account. For example, the data on mild course of the disease in South Africa may be attributed to the specific demographics of the country – its population is relatively young, many of the South Africans have already been infected with COVID-19 once and have some level of protection.
Cevik gives the most common coronavirus strain up until now – Delta, as an example. In many cases the initial information gathered about the Delta variant turned out to be misleading. At the beginning of the spread of this strain, it was said that children suffer much more severely from Delta than from previous known variants, which later turned out to be incorrect. Factors such as the economic and social situation of those infected must also be taken into account, as it very often affects the course of the disease. According to Cevik, the question of how long an infection with Omicron lasts will be one of the last ones to be answered by scientists.
Much of the information about the new variant of the coronavirus, Omicron, is currently speculative. The WHO updates the information about Omicron when new data that is reliable comes about and advises citizens not to trust unverified information. It will certainly be at least a few months before there is a clear picture of how Omicron develops and whether it will become the new dominant variant of coronavirus in the world.