WHO has designated the new variant of SARS-CoV-2 detected in South Africa, B.1.1.529, as a variant of concern (VOC) and named it Omicron. Omicron is an ancient Greek letter. As per the dictionary, it is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.
Dangers of Omicron
Dangers associated with the new African variant Omicron is not yet clear. Initially identified in South Africa and Botswana, Omicron becomes an unknown at the international level. Some experts think it will give competition to the Delta variant in terms of spreading ability.
Spotlight is on Hong Kong and Israel amidst many questions that are not easy to answer at the moment in the absence of data. According to information from South Africa, the symptoms do not appear to vary from those produced by the Delta variant.
In recent weeks, however, “infections have increased dramatically – the WHO note reads – coinciding with the detection of variant B.1.1.529. The first known confirmed infection from B.1.1.529 came from a collected sample on November 9, 2021 “. The data suggest that “Omicron may have a growth advantage” and therefore be more contagious, “in addition to the aforementioned higher risk of reinfection than other variants of concern.”
According to data provided by experts from African CDC centres, the African covid variant was detected in just over 80 samples. What is worrying is the presence of over 30 mutations in the Spike protein region alone, responsible for the entry of the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 into human cells. “The variant B.1.1.529 shows more mutations in the genome of the virus”, reiterate the experts of the African CDC. “Some have been detected in earlier variants, such as Alpha and Delta, and have been associated with increased transmissibility and immune evasion.” In other words, clues abound about the increased contagiousness.
However, the CDC points out that many of the other mutations identified are not yet well characterized and have not been identified in other variants currently in circulation. Further investigations are underway to determine the possible impact on the ability of the virus to spread more efficiently, to affect vaccine efficacy and evade the immune response, and to the ability to cause more severe or milder diseases.
Are there any vaccines against Omicron?
It is premature to talk about vulnerable vaccines, even though Pfizer and Moderna are ready to develop updated versions of their drugs.
“The variant differs considerably from the variants observed previously because it has additional localized mutations in the Spike protein. We expect more data from laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest,” said a Pfizer spokesperson to a French news channel BfmTv.
Pfizer and Moderna have set in motion to update the mRNA vaccines and counter the variant, characterized by many mutations on the Spike protein. Pfizer says the time required for the development of a specific vaccine is 100 days.
“In the event that an escape variant from the vaccine emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and manufacture a bespoke vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval,” a statement read. “We are constantly continuing with surveillance efforts focused on monitoring emerging variants that potentially escape vaccine protection. As always – they conclude – we will continue to follow the science as we examine the best approaches to protect people from Covid.”
An escape variant is a dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 that evades the fledgling immunity established through vaccines and previous infections.
Moderna has not given a detailed time schedule. The company says it aims to rapidly develop a booster dose of the vaccine specific to the variant. “From the beginning, we have said that as we try to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative to be proactive as the virus evolves. Mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days we have been moving as fast as possible to implement our strategy to addressing this variant”, said the CEO of Moderna, Stéphane Bancel.