What is Omicron COVID-19 Variant?
Omicron is a new mutant of the coronavirus (COVID-19) that was identified by South African scientists in November 2021. This new variant is said to be behind the recent spike in COVID-19 infections in the region and now seen across the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) gave this new B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 a Greek letter name, “Omicron” on November 26th 2021. The WHO labelled Omicron a ‘variant of concern’ (VOC), a classification the global health agency has given to only four other variants so far.
The WHO also warned that this new variant may fuel a fresh surge in infections worldwide. Many countries, including India, have stepped up travel restrictions in response.
According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) in India, Omicron is a highly divergent variant having a very unusual constellation of mutations making it more transmissible and thus may have serious public health implications.
Where has the Omicron variant originated, and where has it been confirmed?
While it is still unclear where Omicron (B.1.1.529) first originated, South African scientists first alerted WHO, and as if December 20th it been seen in more than 89 countries.
Highest number of Omicron cases have been reported from Southern Africa, Europe and UK.
More than 150 cases of Omicron have been reported from India from several states and cities.
What are the symptoms of Omicron variant infection?
The Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant infection symptoms are similar to that of the Delta variant infection. Those infected with the Omicron variant may develop one or more of the following symptoms:
- Throat pain or Scratchy throat
- Extreme tiredness
- Dry Cough
- Skin rashes
- Loss of smell or taste
- Drop in oxygen saturation levels
But, there are cases where people infected with this infection are asymptomatic as well.
Why is Omicron a ‘variant of concern’ (VOC) by the WHO?
The WHO designated Omicron (B.1.1.529) a ‘variant of concern’, on the advice of its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE). It is based on the evidence by TAG-VE that the variant B.1.1.529 has many mutations that could have an impact on how it may behave, for instance, on how easily it spreads or the severity of infection it causes.
Medical experts believe that proper use of masks and effective social distancing measures are mandatory to combat the spread of the Omicron variant.
Why is Omicron VOC considered as high risk?
With more than 30 spike mutations (double the number carried by Delta variant) that may confer immune escape potential and high transmissibility, the COVID Omicron variant poses a “very high” global risk and is likely to spread further, according to the WHO.
The global health agency further warned that the surges of COVID-19 infections caused by this variant of concern (VOC) may have severe consequences depending upon the number of factors including the areas it may spread. This variant appears to have much higher chance of infecting other, as high as 70 times more than delta variant. Number of cases appear to be doubling every 1.5 to 3 days.
What is the treatment protocol for Omicron?
In the wake of the emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus in India, experts in the country say no change is needed to the clinical protocol and home-based care. The treatment protocols for COVID-19 and Delta variant will apply.
While home-based care is going to play a significant role in milder clinical presentation, at Apollo Hospitals, the following investigation and treatment protocol for COVID-19 are followed:
What is the effectiveness of prior tests, vaccines and treatments?
Effectiveness of vaccines: Even though vaccination remains critical, it is still unclear how jabs will work against the new Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant. Research is still underway to determine whether the Omicron variant of the virus will be resistant to vaccines. Preliminary reports shows that some of the COVID vaccines may not be fully effective in preventing COVID-19 infection.
However, experts say that even if the variant limits the effectiveness of vaccines, it is unlikely to subvert the protections provided by the vaccines completely. To sum up, vaccines are crucial in lowering severe illness and mortality.
Effectiveness of current tests: The extensively used PCR tests will continue to detect COVID-19 infection, including the Omicron infection, which is seen with other variants as well. Studies are still underway to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, like the rapid antigen detection tests.
Effectiveness of current treatments: According to the WHO, while other treatments are being studied to understand if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in this new variant. Antivirals like Remdesvir, monoclonal antibody treatment, Corticosteroids may still be effective to manage patients with severe COVID-19 infection.
Does the Omicron re-infect people who have previously had COVID-19 infection?
Preliminary data shows an increased risk of reinfection even if someone had COVID-19 previously.
Does the Omicron variant cause more severe illness?
Preliminary data from South Africa shows that the rate of hospitalization is rising among those infected with Omicron COVID-19 infection. But, so far there is no evidence that directly links infection with this new strain with an increased need for hospitalization. The WHO says that the rise in hospitalization could be due to a general increase in infection rates.
With limited data available now, it may likely take some weeks to find out if the Omicron variant causes more severe illness among the general public.
Are Children at risk of getting infected with the new strain?
While there are no reports of severe disease in children, the South Africa-based National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported that children below the age of 2 accounted for about 10 per cent of total hospital admissions in Tshwane, South Africa – the epicenter of the infections caused by the Omicron variant
What precautions can be taken to protect against Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant?
The best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is to:
- Maintain social distance (staying at least 1-meter from others)
- Wear a well-fitting mask
- Wash or sanitize hands and surfaces regularly
- Avoid crowded places
- Avoid poorly ventilated places (open windows to improve ventilation in shared spaces)
- Practice respiratory hygiene (cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue)
- Get vaccinated (when it’s your turn)
According to the WHO, South African researchers and those around the world are conducting studies to understand the numerous aspects of Omicron better. The number of people testing positive has grown in South African areas that are affected by this variant. However, epidemiologic studies are in progress to understand if it is because of Omicron or due to other factors.
In addition, the Who also says that while preliminary data suggest increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, this could be due to an increase in the overall numbers of people getting infected, rather than the result of specific infection with Omicron variant.
We will update and continue to share the new findings as they become available.
The emergence of this new Omicron variant shows once again that the pandemic is far from over and COVID-19 suitable behaviour is critical to breaking the chain of transmission. While more time is needed to understand the new variant, medical experts believe the use of proper masks, good ventilation in all shared spaces and effective social distancing measures are the need of the hour. In addition, be vigilant but do not panic and get tested if you get sick. It is also safe to get tested if you’ve recently traveled.