Omicron Variant: What is it?
Not much is known about this new variant, but initial studies from South Africa (where the variant seems to have originated) are encouraging in the sense that there are no indications so far of the variant causing serious illness and severe symptoms, or being any more transmissible than the other variants, including Delta.
But this is just speculation at this point, and more case studies and research are needed to substantiate them.
In the meantime, there is what we do know about the new variant.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the new variant (B.1.1.529) was detected in South Africa for the first time on 24 November. However, it's likely been around for at least a few weeks leading up to the date.
The variant was dubbed Omicron by the health authority.
On 26 November, the WHO classified the variant as a 'variant of concern' which means it poses a potential threat to global public health.
COVID cases in regions where the variant was detected have been on the rise, but it's difficult to pin it on Omicron as yet in the absence of solid data linking the two.
So far, other than India, the variant has been detected in South Africa, Brazil, Israel, the UK, Canada, and the US among other countries.
The variant has a large number of mutations, unlike any of the previously known COVID variants.
Speaking to FIT for a different article, virologist Dr Shahid Jameel explained, "It has a total of 50 mutations, of which 32 are in a region which we call the spike protein, which is a 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."Dr Shahid Jameel, Virologist
A Cause for Concern?
This, however, doesn't mean it's time to press the panic switch just yet.
"There is no need to panic about the Omicron detection, but awareness is absolutely essential. Follow COVID-appropriate behaviour, avoid gatherings," Lav Agarwal, the Health Ministry's Joint Secretary was quoted as saying by NDTV.
The WHO too has urged caution considering information about the variant and its behaviour is very limited at the moment.
"Omicron variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Researchers around the world are conducting studies to better understand transmissibility, severity and immune escape capabilities of Omicron," said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region in a press statement.
Till such time, health authorities and experts continue to urge people to get vaccinated, mask up, and not get complacent.
"This emphasizes on the need for all countries to step up surveillance, to be on alert and rapidly detect any importation and take measures to curtail further spread of the virus."Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region
The MoHFW has also announced new travel guidelines for international arrivals in light of the rapid spread of the variant.
(Written with inputs from NDTV.)