Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo credit: Thomas Faull/Alamy Live News
On November 26, the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) designated the variant B.1.1.529 a “variant of concern.” It was given the name Omicron.
The decision was based on the evidence presented to the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.
In his Facebook account, Dr. Teodoro “Ted” Herbosa said Omicron “came from a single individual who has HIV, that was the findings.” HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, the microorganism that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
“(Omicron) has 32 spike mutations, meaning the shape of the virus changed,” said Dr. Herbosa, who is a special adviser to the National Task Force against COVID-19. In comparison, the Delta variant has only eight spike mutations.
Because Omicron has 32 spike mutations, the vaccines being used in the country’s vaccination program against COVID-19 “might not be able to recognize (the new variant).”
What is even alarming is that there are “10 changes in the spike protein surface, which makes it easier to bind to our A2 receptors.”
In our research, we found this bit of information: “Alpha-2 receptors are found on cells in the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is part of the nervous system that increases heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and pupil size.”
A press release from WHO stated: “The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on November 24, 2021. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on November 9, 2021.”
Right now, according to the United Nations health agency, researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available. So far, here’s what science knows about Omicron:
Transmissibility: It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (that is, more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.
Severity of disease: It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta. Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron.
There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. Initial reported infections were among university studies – younger individuals who tend to have a more mild disease – but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.
All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.
Those who had been infected with COVID-19 before should better watch out.
“Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (that is, people who have previously had COVID-19 could become re-infected more easily with Omicron), as compared to other variants of concern,” WHO said, adding that information on this matter is still limited.
Effectiveness of vaccines: WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating virus, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.
Effectiveness of current tests: The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as we have seen with other variants as well. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.
Effectiveness of current treatments: Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.
As of November 28, the WHO is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron.
“Studies currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments,” the WHO said in a statement.
Aside from being vaccinated, the WHO urged people to still follow recommended health protocols.
“The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 meter from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated when it’s their turn.”