THERE has been a lot of news about the new Omicron viral variant. What exactly is it?The Omicron viral variant has recently been named by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
It is a new SARS-CoV-2 virus variant that is potentially more transmissible and has been classified as a variant of concern.
Right now, we do not know how much of a concern it should be.
We do not know how much more contagious it is compared to the Delta variant (which is more than twice as contagious as other SARS-CoV-2 viral variants).
At the time of writing, we do not know if the vaccines we currently have are effective against it.
And we do not know if it can cause more severe disease compared to previous variants.
What we do know is that there will likely be many more variants of concern developing in the world throughout our lives, and medical science has to keep on evolving to combat it, e.g. by modifying the current Covid-19 vaccines and discovering new drugs to treat the infection – just like we did for influenza.
Where did the Omicron variant come from?The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa on Nov 9 and reported to the WHO on Nov 24.
However, it has been reported that Dutch scientists have detected this variant in samples collected before.The reason it became of concern was because South Africa is seeing a large spike in Covid-19 cases due to this variant.
Why is it called Omicron?The WHO started to name variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus according to the Greek alphabet to make them easy to say and remember.
So far, it has been according to the Greek alphabetical order, i.e. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on up to Mu.
But this time, the WHO decided to jump two letters in the Greek alphabet to “avoid stigma” towards a certain region. Omicron’s real viral name is B.1.1.529.
It is a variant of concern because it has many mutations, particularly on the spike protein of the virus that many vaccines are based on, and has been responsible for a significant rise in Covid-19 cases.
At the time of writing, it has been identified in 38 countries worldwide, including Malaysia.
Is the Omicron variant more infective than the Delta variant?Scientists are still studying this.
The Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
So, scientists are concerned that having so many mutations would make the variant attach more easily to human cells without being neutralised by our antibodies, which would have been formed due to our vaccinations and/or having had Covid-19 before.
However, this is just a theory and has yet to be borne out in real-world evidence.
Will my Covid-19 vaccine protect against this variant?The Omicron viral variant spread very quickly in South Africa, becoming the dominant variant in a matter of days, rather than weeks or months.
When we say a variant is dominant, it means that that particular variant has become the main variant spreading in a certain region, compared to other viral variants, even Delta.
Some vaccine manufacturers like Moderna say that they are rapidly working to test their vaccines against the Omicron variant.
They will release the data within several weeks.
They are also testing an Omicron-specific vaccine booster shot.
How we approach the situation caused by the Omicron variant is no different than the biannual modification of vaccines against the influenza virus.
The influenza virus also mutates very quickly, and we need a yearly flu vaccine shot to neutralise the new variants.
British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is also testing its vaccine against the variant, as well as its new antibody treatment for Covid-19.
German biotechnology company BioNTech, which developed the first approved Covid-19 mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccine, is doing similar research, as is the American corporation Johnson and Johnson.
What are the symptoms caused by this new Omicron variant? Are they worse than the Delta variant? Frankly, I’ve had quite enough with two years of movement restrictions, and I don’t want to go through it any more!The South African doctor, Angelique Coetzee, who first studied the Omicron variant and its effect on patients, said that the symptoms were unusual, but mild in healthy patients.
The symptoms she observed were sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two.
The patients had a slight cough, but nothing else prominent.
They did not suffer from loss of smell or taste, unlike the other variants where those are common symptoms.
They got better very quickly, however.
A six-year-old girl was also among the patients she looked at.
This girl presented with a fever and a very high pulse rate, but got better after two days.
So far, it sounds like any other viral illness as none of these symptoms are particularly unique.
However, it should be noted that all the patients were healthy, and the worry is always about the elderly, those with other diseases (co-morbidities) and the otherwise infirmed, just like it is with any infectious disease, including those caused by the original and Delta variants.
Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment.