As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to make its way around the world, there are a lot of questions about how dangerous the new variant is, with respect to three things:
Transmissibility – how contagious is the new variant?
Lethality – how likely is the new variant to cause death or severe illness that could lead to hospitalisation?
Vaccine efficacy – how effective are the current vaccines in resisting the new variant?
Anthony Fauci, who is the Chief Medical Advisor to the United States (US) President Joe Biden, has said that a "study from South Africa shows that there appears to be an increased propensity for reinfection with Omicron among people who were previously infected with other coronavirus variants, such as Beta and Delta," AFP reported.
Describing the Omicron variant as "clearly highly transmissible," and "very likely more than Delta," Fauci also asserted that the molecular evidence of the new variant suggests that the Omicron mutations have increased infectivity, even among those people who were previously infected with other COVID-19 variants.
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Pfizer Albert Bourla, however, cautioned about being optimistic regarding the infectivity of Omicron.
"I don’t think it’s good news to have something that spreads fast. Spreads fast means it will be in billions of people and another mutation may come. You don’t want that," he said during a Wall Street Journal interview, CNBC reported.
On the bright side, however, Fauci did say that the emerging evidence points towards Omicron lacking the severity that was previously seen in the Delta variant.
Saying that it "almost certainly is not more severe than Delta," Fauci added that, "when you look at some of the cohorts that are being followed in South Africa, the ratio between the number of infections and the number of hospitalisations seems to be less than with Delta."
While early indications were a "bit encouraging," he also warned that it would "take weeks to judge the severity of the new Covid-19 variant Omicron."
Even Bourla cautioned that it is would be misguided to draw definitive conclusions by observing the current trends in South Africa .
"Just 5 per cent of South Africans are over the age of 60, and younger people normally have milder cases of COVID", he said.
"We will have a good understanding let’s say before the year-end as to what exactly it means for clinical manifestation."
Mixed signals are emerging with respect to how effective the current vaccines will be to resist the Omicron variant.
A World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Wednesday that existing vaccines should still be able to protect those who get severely ill after being infected by the Omicron variant, BBC reported.
Dr Ryan, the WHO's emergencies director told AFP, "We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there's no reason to expect that it wouldn't be so."
He insisted, "If anything, the direction is towards less severity."
However, Professor Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Durban-based Africa Health Research Institute, said that the Omicron variant did not entirely evade the vaccine's resistance.
Experimenting on the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, the research concluded that it may not be as effective against Omicron as against other strains of COVID-19, but it would still offer some degree of protection.
Sigal also said that an extra jab, combined with previous infection, could effectively put down the new variant, thereby suggesting the need for booster shots.
On this matter, Pfizer CEO Bourla said that while it’s still unclear about whether there’s a need for an extra jab, his company can create a vaccine by March next year that specifically targets the Omicron variant.
Just like it would take more time to come to conclusions about the lethality of the new variant, a few weeks' time will be needed to determine whether the current vaccines provide enough protection against Omicron, he added.
In conclusion, Omicron variant, as of now, seems to be more infectious but less fatal. But the consensus on vaccine efficacy remains divided.
The new variant has arrived in India, making an appearance in states like Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi, and Maharashtra.
More than 20 cases in India have been detected in total.
Additionally, the Omicron variant has spread to more than 50 countries around the world, and more than 19 states in the US, according to the CNBC.
Britain's health minister Sajid Javid told the parliament on Monday that community transmission of the Omicron variant had begun in regions across England, Reuters reported.
(With inputs from AFP, Reuters, CNBC, and BBC)