The Covid-19 Omicron variant: What is known so far

The world has once again been shaken by the detection of a new Covid-19 variant of concern, named Omicron by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Mail and Guardian spoke to Versatile Nkwinika, a virologist from the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, on what is currently known about the variant.

Nkwinika said Omicron — whose discovery was first announced last week by South African genomic surveillance scientists at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequence Platform (Krisp) and experts from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) — was now classified as a variant of concern. 

Krisp director Professor Tulio de Oliveira said the variant had a high number of adaptations, which was a concern for immune evasion and transmissibility. At the time of the announcement, 22 cases had been identified in Gauteng and others were being investigated in other parts of the country.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning — there are more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to human cells, allowing it to gain entry,” Nkwinika said.

WHO says it is currently not clear whether Omicron can be easily spread between people like the Delta variant, which has been the dominant variant circulating globally. It is also currently not known whether it causes severe disease when compared to infections from other variants.

“There is a lot of work that is ongoing to better characterise the variant itself in terms of transmissibility, severity and any other impact on diagnostics, therapeutics or vaccines. So far there is little information, but those studies are underway,” Nkwinika said.

“People who are at highest risk of contracting the new variant are those who are not vaccinated, and who are not adhering to public health measures to protect themselves.”

Omicron can be detected using the current Covid-19 tests. And according to infectious disease expert Professor Salim Abdool Karim, current vaccines are effective against the new variant.

“As far as diagnostics, clinical presentation, and current treatments, we have got no reason for concern,” Karim told a briefing arranged by the health department on Monday.

Nkwinika said even though the current positive cases were found in younger people, it was too soon to tell whether vaccines were protecting the older population that had been inoculated in higher numbers.

“There are reasons why the virus is spreading amongst young people,” Nkwinika said. “Although estimations based on modelling suggest that 60% to 70% of the population have some natural form of immunity, as they have been exposed to the virus, we know that natural immunity wanes relatively quickly, especially when someone has had a mild or asymptomatic infection as is generally with the case with healthy young people, hence making them susceptible to re-infection.” 

“The younger age group is not the main target for Covid-19 vaccinations, and currently just over 21% of 18 to 34-year-olds have been fully vaccinated, which means that the majority of them are unprotected.”

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Marcia Zali
Marcia Zali is an award winning journalist

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