Hello friends, after the alpha gamma and delta variant of Covid a new variant has surfaced in the market. Its name is the Omicron variant. There are a lot of uncertainties revolving around the omicron variant. We all know that mutations in a virus are normal and it will happen over a while. Governments and people are afraid and panicking even after knowing this. Some of the countries have already ordered partial lockdown in their respective countries. Let us understand the what, why, and how of this variant in this article.
News journalists are showing news on omicron day in and out.
The name of this variant is the OMICRON variant or B.1.1.529 it was first discovered in Botswana in Africa. But scientists of South Africa reported it to WHO for the first time on 24th Nov 2021. The omicron variant has been identified in many major countries of the world including Australia, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Britain, Israel, Belgium, Czech Republic, and Hong kong. These are the cases that have come in limelight, in reality when you will end up reading this article it would likely have spread to most of the major countries of the world. On 26th November 2021 WHO recognized this variant as a variant of concern.
What types of variants do we have?
WHO divides the covid 19 variants into three major types. These are:
- Variant of concern
- Variant of interest
- variants of high consequence
WHAT IS A VARIANT OF CONCERN?
The variants of covid 19 through which significant community transmission is possible are known as variants of concern. These variants are potentially problematic. A predicted increase in transmissibility or disease severity is observed due to them. At the moment there are two variants which are variants of interest according to WHO1) Lambda variant found in PERU in Dec 20202) Mu variant found in Columbia in Jan 2021
What are variants of concern? A variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (for example, increased hospitalizations or deaths), a significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures. For variants of concern, vaccine efficacy may also decrease.
How many variants of concern do we have now?
As per WHO data, there were 4 variants of concern till now, these are:
- Alpha variant found in the United Kingdom on Sep 20
- Beta variant found in South Africa on May 20
- Gamma variant found in Brazil on Nov 20
- Delta variant found in India on Oct 20
Of these, the delta variant was the most dangerous and prominent. In India, the delta variant unleashed havoc in the second wave. Also delta variant is the one that is responsible for 99% of the cases worldwide. Now omicron is the fifth variant of concern, which has put scientists all over the globe including WHO into a fear that this can become the next delta variant and will wreak havoc like it. And eventually, omicron may dominate the world which may cause new waves of covid 19 all over the world and cases may skyrocket once again.
WHAT IS A VARIANT OF INTEREST?
WHO defines a variant of interest as:
“specific genetic markers that have been associated with changes to receptor binding, reduced neutralization by antibodies generated against previous infection or vaccination, reduced efficacy of treatments, potential diagnostic impact, or predicted increase in transmissibility or disease severity.”
“We will probably have a variant of what we call a variant of interest identified every few weeks,”
Variants of interest just mean we’ve seen a number of the same genetic mutations emerge and scientists around the world are on the lookout for it every single time. A virus anywhere in the world gets this genetic sequence which makes it updated into a database that’s shared internationally, so we can really see what’s emerging. When a variant of interest emerges, it says, ‘Oh, this is something we should watch a little bit.'”
WHAT ARE VARIANTS OF HIGH CONSEQUENCE?
It has clear evidence that prevention measures or medical countermeasures have significantly reduced effectiveness relative to previously circulating variants.” Or, as Chicago’s top doctor put it, a variant in which “the vaccine was not working very well.”
Currently, there are no variants of high consequence.
IS COVID-19 VARIANT OMICRON WORSE THAN DELTA VARIANT?
Before that let us understand one thing long before covid-19 came into existence one such disease was there with similar symptoms. Can you guess which disease I am talking about? Some of you must have guessed it right, it is seasonal flu. Covid-19 symptoms are a bit severe when compared to seasonal flu. Flu just like covid-19 affects people with low immunity and mostly old people. And just to make things clear a WHO article published in 2017 tells us that every year up to 650000 people die of respiratory diseases linked to seasonal flu.
If you don’t know I would like to tell you that Seasonal flu has vaccines. These vaccines are updated every year because the virus which causes seasonal flu keeps on mutating. Till now more than 50 mutations of Covid have been recognized. Every variant contains spike protein that enables the virus to enter our body. This spike protein is observed very closely by scientists as it gives a perspective of how to virus spreads. In the delta variant, there were 9 mutations in spike protein. But what is a cause of concern is that the omicron variant has 32 mutations in spike protein. This is the reason that it is being said that the virus has significantly evolved.
HOW EASILY CAN THIS VARIANT SPREAD?
In an update on Omicron from WHO, they have told that they are looking at the variant and doing research on how transmissible it is? WHO does not have sufficient data to give a number as this variant has been recently discovered. A case study was conducted in South Africa. It was reported that the omicron variant saw a significant increase in test positivity. Within a week it jumped from 1% to 30%.
WHO claims that maybe this variant is much more transmissible. Whereas some of the scientists who are privately observing and doing research on Covid-19 claim that the omicron variant is up to 500% more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain.
Delta variant was considered 60% more transmissible than the Alpha strain. And Alpha strain was considered around 50% more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain. So after doing the calculation it is quite clear that omicron is much more transmissible than the previous strains. This can be good news as viruses tend to be less deadly as they mutate and become more transmissible. Transmissibility and deadly are inversely proportional to each other. It is observed that those viruses that are very deadly are less transmissible and vice versa with some exceptions. Just look at the speed with which the new variant is spreading in South Africa.
HOW DEADLY IS OMICRON VARIANT?
According to scientists from WHO it will take some time to comment on this question, but the preliminary data from South Africa shows increased hospitalization. But there is no clear conclusion from this as it does not mean that increased hospitalization means more deadly. But for now, we have to understand that it can be both ways that are increased hospitalization maybe because it is more transmissible or because it is more deadly. Therefore it will not be correct to comment on something until it is clear about its death rate. We are till now not clear about the effectiveness of vaccines on omicron. But for now, if you are vaccinated do not fear as chances are that vaccines will be effective against it.
But because of the uncertainties surrounding the variant governments all over the globe have sprung into action. They have started imposing travel restrictions once again. Some governments have even gone ahead and imposed lockdown. The United Kingdom has ordered restrictions on travelers coming from many African countries. These countries are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia. The USA has also applied travel restrictions on travelers coming from these countries. The USA has also held that people from these countries are not allowed into the USA. However, US citizens are allowed who are travel from these countries.
IS THE DECISION TO APPLY TRAVEL BAN RIGHT?
Many scientists are criticizing this decision. They are saying that these travel restrictions are not effective. People who are desperate to reach a place will simply travel to some country from where they may travel to the countries where there are restrictions. To understand this consider a person residing in Africa and has a relative in the USA and he has to visit him. But due to the travel restrictions, he can not go to the USA directly as he would not be allowed. But what this person can do is to take a flight to a country where there are no restrictions. Then from there, he may fly to the USA. In the past two years, we have seen many such cases. This leads to an increase in the spread of the virus.
Also just consider this, this decision of travel ban is only for middle and lower-middle-class people as rich and politicians are traveling as per their will. They don’t have any restrictions. We should give credit where it is due. South Africa as soon as it registered a new variant informed all the countries regarding the same and other countries instead of rationally thinking banned flights from South Africa. Which lead to a standstill in the aviation industry in South Africa within a day due to this panic.
Let us consider, because of these decisions, in the future if a new variant is found in any country that country might think it is better to be silent about the variant. Otherwise, it may impact their industries cause huge losses, and punish their country due to which their economy might tank.
WHAT THOUGHTS DO YOU HAVE ON THE RECENTLY APPLIED LOCKDOWN MEASURES?
In my personal opinion to put travel ban from some country should be the last resort and not the first impulse. First, we should analyze and increase monitoring and risk analysis, and testing of travelers coming from these countries. A travel ban should only be applied when all other measures have failed. When all this started we were told by our respective governments that lockdown is being done to flatten the curve. So that they get time to erect proper medical infrastructure, but now these measures are being taken as preventive measures.
It is like we don’t know how this variant will be so as prevention we are banning flights. This decision impacts a common man in a way that is beyond our imagination. Just think of you and the people living around you. What is the effect on the mental health of people just because of these lockdowns and being locked inside their homes? What is the effect on school-going students who are not able to play outdoors or meet people? And what is the effect on the economy of our country?
Do people get proper medical supervision during lockdowns?
During the lockdown, people requiring emergency medical supervision due to other medical conditions were not able to get proper attention due to lockdowns as everyone was focused on covid-19. In my opinion, all the governments which are giving such random decisions display that these are just political moves. They just want to be the first to take action they want to prove that they are doing something, that they are proactive.
In reality, if they are at all concerned they should focus more on testing and preparing more and more hospital beds. To prepare to take on the surge in cases if it happens, and mind you it will happen. In the coming months we will be hearing more such stories of new variants as this is how viruses evolve, they mutate constantly. We have to evolve and be prepared. We should prepare to tackle the new variants by improving our health infrastructure, by supporting each other as we have to think as humankind and not as a country if we have to survive and evolve for a long time.
What do you think about this? Write down below in the comments section and let us know going forward how should we deal with this issue.
A lineage is a group of closely related viruses with a common ancestor. SARS-CoV-2 has many lineages; all-cause COVID-19.
A variant is a viral genome (genetic code) that may contain one or more mutations. A group of variants with similar genetic changes. Such as a lineage or group of lineages, is designated by public health organizations as a Variant of Concern (VOC) or a Variant of Interest (VOI). It is done due to shared attributes and characteristics that may require public health action.
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Dr. Susanna Ashton has been practicing medicine for over 20 years and she is very excited to assist Healthoriginaltips in providing understandable and accurate medical information. When not strolling on the beaches she loves to write about health and fitness.