The world has endured much due to COVID. From lockdowns to vaccine protocols and remote work, much has happened to redefine modern life for many generations. The intriguing thing about COVID isn’t so much that it can be lethal, but that it continues to evolve into forms that seem to mock efforts at developing a lasting vaccine.
The latest variant that’s got everyone talking is called Omicron. It was discovered in South Africa after a doctor informed the world about it. Omicron brings about “unusual but mild” symptoms in healthy patients. However, this obviously astute doctor believes the strain could cause complications in elderly and unvaccinated people.
The doctor is Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a thirty-year veteran of the profession. It’s no surprise that Dr. Coetzee heads the SAMA, the South African Medical Association. She discovered the new strain in patients at her Pretoria-based private practice.
Omicron may be making news headlines, but most people only know it’s a COVID variant. This article answers the question of what makes Omicron different from others, what vaccine makers are doing about it, and why you should care.
How Omicron is Different from Other Variants
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that the likelihood of further spread of Omicron is “very high” due to its high number of mutations. However, there have been no deaths related to Omicron, even though serious consequences are possible.
There’s a lot that’s not clear about the transmissibility of Omicron, but preliminary data suggests a higher risk of reinfection with the variant.
The WHO suspects that there are cases of the new strain in vaccinated people, even though the proportion may be small and predictable. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, reminds everyone that a new wave of cases and deaths is making its way across Europe, a hotbed of the Delta variant.
The resilient Delta variant has 9 mutations on its spike protein, while Omicron boasts a handsome 32. In all, Omicron has 50 mutations on all proteins. What’s the “spike protein,” anyway? It’s the protein largely responsible for infection as it’s the structure the virus uses to get into the cells they attack.
Omicron’s mutations also include those seen in the Delta variant which possibly makes transmissibility possible in the Beta and Delta variants. The mutations in these variants are likely responsible for promoting immune escape, according to vaccine maker Moderna.
Therefore, Omicron is potentially more transmissible and more dangerous because of the new combination of mutations.
Important Facts About Omicron
Here is a rundown of what Omicron is and what everyone should know about it.
How Easy is It for Omicron to Spread?
All indications point to the possibility that Omicron will spread faster than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, no one is certain how it’s spread compares to the spread of Delta.
The US Centers for Disease Control is adopting the cautious position of saying that any person with Omicron infection can spread the virus to everyone, regardless of whether they have zero symptoms or are vaccinated.
Will Omicron Cause More Serious Illness?
Omicron is still new and scientists are working round the clock to understand it fully. They need more data to be able to say whether Omicron infections lead to more severe illness or death than infections by other existing variants. This includes reinfections and breakthrough infections.
Can Vaccines Work Against Omicron?
Medical experts expect currently available vaccines to be able to handle severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths from Omicron infection.
But, breakthrough infections in fully-vaccinated people could still happen. The vaccines have been effective over other variants including Delta. They’re able to protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
Omicron solidifies the case for boosters and vaccination.
Will Treatments Be Effective Against Omicron?
Studies are continuing to determine the efficacy of current COVID-19 treatments. The genetics of Omicron means some treatments may work against it while others will not be as effective.
The WHO continues to push for vaccination, calling it essential in the strategy to curb or reduce death or severe disease from the more prevalent Delta variant. It’s also seeking rapid vaccination of high-priority groups.
In terms of tests, PCR tests are still effective in detecting infection by variants including Omicron.
What Vaccine Makers are Saying
Health officials continue o anticipate the full impact of the Omicron variant. Here are the current positions of various vaccine makers to the new variant.
Moderna, a principal vaccine maker will soon provide information on the effectiveness of its vaccines against Omicron. The company’s chief medical officer, Paul Burton, says an Omicron-specific variant of their vaccine will take a few weeks to be ready for testing and production. This could stretch to three months.
The company is also testing an Omicron-specific booster at a rapid pace, according to CEO Stéphane Bancel.
If the current vaccine and booster are not incapable of handling Omicron, Moderna is suggesting boosting people with a larger dose. The company is currently testing this option.
Two other options Moderna is evaluating include two multivalent boosters to ascertain if they offer better protection against Omicron. Each candidate includes several of the viral mutations present in Omicron.
Pharmaceutical giant, AstraZeneca, is also testing the limits of its vaccine against Omicron.
It’s important to remember that this vaccine has no authorization for use in the US. Tests for this vaccine are ongoing in research labs located where medical officers have identified the variant. This includes countries such as Botswana and the Kingdom of Eswatini. According to a company spokesperson, this unique approach will allow the company to collect real-world data of Vaxzevria against Omicron.
AstraZeneca also has an antibody it’s testing against the variant. It’s called AZD7442, and there’s an application before the US Food and Drug Administration to authorize the treatment for emergency use.
What Other Vaccine Makers are Doing
Moderna and AstraZeneca seem to be doing a lot regarding Omicron. However, they’re not the only ones. BioNTech’s scientists are looking at how the new variant will impact their product. Again, useful data is weeks away.
On the other hand, a Johnson & Johnson spokesperson only revealed there are ongoing tests on the effectiveness of their vaccine against Omicron.
Will Omicron Be the Last Variant of COVID-19?
The scientific community has praised the high awareness of Dr. Angelique Coetzee in discovering the latest variant. It might have seemed like a battle won by humankind when the initial wave of vaccines reached were distributed. Unfortunately, Omicron crept up on us with masterful stealth.
There’s been plenty of work to deliver vaccines and stop the spread of the virus, yet the coast is far from clear. With COVID revealing Beta, Delta, and now Omicron, we are certainly not sure what it has up its lethal sleeves.