Omicron COVID Variant Could Spell Trouble, or Could Mean Good News
Just when the world started seeing an almost lull in the COVID pandemic front, we have been introduced to yet another variant of concern—Omicron.
The variant first identified by scientists in South Africa, has now been detected in over 24 countries, including India.
Is this new variant faster? Stronger? More Dangerous? Everyone wants to know. But the simple answer to these questions is, we don't know yet.
Before we go sounding the alarm bells, let's look at what we do know about the variant, and what its arrival could mean for the future of the pandemic.
What we know about this variant comes from what we have observed. And at this point, things could go either way.
The new variant could spell trouble if it turns out to be more virulent than the other variants we know. On the other hand, although it might be too early to say for sure, if the current trends are anything to go by, Omicron may even turn out to have an upside.
Omicron: What We Know So Far
First, let's break down how this variant is different from the others.
Speaking to FIT for another article, reputed virologist, Dr Shahid Jameel called it "the most mutated variant of COVID 19 that we have seen so far."
He went on to explain that the variant has a total of 50 mutations of which 32 are in the spike protein, on the surface of the virus.
"Some of these mutations are within a region which we call the receptor-binding domain. These are regions which are used by the virus to bind to its target cells and to enter cells. This is also the region which is the target of antibodies that neutralize the virus, including monoclonal antibodies that have been used to treat patients."Dr Shahid Jameel, Virologist
Something else that we know about the variant is that COVID cases in regions where the variant has been found appears to be going up rapidly.
According to the WHO, epidemiological studies are underway to establish a possible direct link between the rise in cases and this particular variant, and figure out whether it is more transmissible than the Delta Variant.
The good news, though, is that early studies from Israel and South Africa suggest that omicron mostly causes mild illness.
Omicron & the COVID Endemic
According to the WHO, preliminary evidence suggests that the variant may increase risk of reinfections as compared to other variants. But this in itself need not be a matter of great concern.
Experts have time and again reiterated the distinction between infection and disease.
While some newer variants have been able to circumvent the vaccine's protection and cause breakthrough infections, they rarely cause disease—serious illness and severe symptoms—in fully vaccinated people who don't fall in the high risk category.
As of now, Omicron seems to be following a similar pattern.
This may have something to do with the fact that those who were initially reported to have been infected with this variant were young people who are typically at a lower risk of developing severe illness.
But, if this continues, a silver lining would be that the variant could increase herd immunity and turn COVID-19 into an endemic sooner rather than later.
Speaking to FIT, Dr Jameel explained, "If the initial speculation that this virus is less severe, that would indicate to me that the virus is on the way to becoming endemic. That's how the 1918 flu disappeared, and that's how this (COVID) will disappear."
Disappearing, of course, doesn't mean that the virus will be eliminated altogether. It will stay in the population and continue to infect like the common cold virus, "but enough of the population would either have been immunised or infected to allow any serious disease."
Moreover, viruses are also known to typically get weaker with mutations as they become established in a population. In the case of COVID-19, Omicron may be that stepping stone to the endemic stage, if preliminary studies are anything to go by.
Dr Jameel also pointed to the possibility of immune escape and transmissibility being mutually exclusive.
"It is possible that if this virus spreads very quickly, it may be easily neutralised by existing antibodies," he says, like in the case of the Delta variant.
Writing for the Quint, Prof K. Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), also pointed out, "early reports from South Africa indicate that the illness caused by this variant is mild, with sore muscles and tiredness."
"If this is corroborated in larger studies, it might indicate that the virus is evolving towards a more infectious but less virulent form."Prof K Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India
This would mean that if the Omicron variant continues to be highly transmissible and cause only mild symptoms, it is likely to infect more people without much consequence, and possibly even without the patient's knowledge—invariably leading to a higher degree of heard immunity.
But, these are merely speculations at this point, and how individual mutations behave and how a combination of mutations behave cannot really be predicted in the absence of solid studies.
Not a Time to Let Our Guards Down
All this doesn't mean we're out of the woods. The World Health Organisation has urged caution in light of how little we know abut the variant as of now.
"The early signs are at least encouraging that the virus may not be causing severe disease. But, let us not be complacent, let us be concerned, but not get paranoid."Dr Shahid Jameel, Virologist
Dr Jameel also pointed out that we can't predict how a combination of mutations (like in the case of Omicron) will behave based on how known mutations behave.
Moreover, all known variants including the globally dominant Delta variant can cause severe illness in high risk groups, and as a rule of thumb, prevention is definitely the key.
All health authorities, therefore, are urging everyone to mask up, get vaccinated and keep their guards up till we get more substantial information about the Omicron variant.
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