Undoubtedly, there is global concern about what impact the omicron variant could have on the Covid-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has elected the new Omicron Covid-19 variant to be “of concern” based on evidence that it has several mutations that may impact how it behaves; for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes. However, there is no information to suggest that symptoms associated are different to those from other variants, WHO said.
“Initial reported infections were among university students — younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease — but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks,” said WHO in a statement.
It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible 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,” WHO said.
“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.” Preliminary evidence also suggests that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron, compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited, WHO said.
Scientists will now need to quickly use established laboratory methods to determine how much immunity blood from vaccinated people has against Omicron and we will then be able to use the established relationship between immunity and vaccine efficacy to predict how existing vaccines will perform against Omicron, and therefore how much impact this new variant may have on the inroads we have made in the fight against Covid-19 disease.
Vaccine manufacturers are working on updated vaccines in case they’re needed. Scientists believe the current vaccines will still provide a level of protection against serious illness and cautions people should not wait to get boosters. That extra protection is needed now.
The emergence of the new variant shows once again that the pandemic is far from over — and Covid-appropriate behaviour is critical for breaking the chain of transmission: masking, social distancing, good ventilation in all shared spaces, and washing or sanitising hands and surfaces regularly.
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) is an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behaviour of the virus. The TAG-VE was convened on November 26, 2021 to assess the SARS-CoV-2 variant: B.1.1.529.
The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 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.
WHO advises countries to do the following:
enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.
submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.
report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.
where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.