The scourge is back: A new COVID-19 variant identified
It seems that the world has not seen the last of COVID-19. Just as it looked like the worst was over, a new COVID-19 variant has been reported in South African. Scientists claimed that the new COVID variant, dubbed ‘Omicron’, is responsible for the recent spike in the Gauteng province.
What do we know?
Honestly, not much. It is too early to tell how dangerous the new COVID variant is and how contagious it is. But what is known is that the new variant, known as lineage B.1.1.529, has been declared a variant of concern. What this means is that the new Omicron variant demonstrates an “increase in transmissibility” or “detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology”.
Recent studies conducted reveal that Omicron is not related to any of the other currently widespread strains like the Delta or previous Alpha variant. This probably means that the vaccines that have been developed until now may prove inefficient at handling this new threat, which brings us to the next point.
The vaccines that have been produced to date have all been designed to target a specific protein in the COVID-19 virus. The Spike protein, which is found on the surface of the virus, is the standard target for vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson among others.
Omicron introduces an additional 32 mutations of the Spike protein which will require a re-designed on part of the vaccines. A study has already shown that just 20 mutations would be enough for any variant to avoid the neutralizing antibodies produced by vaccinated people. This is a serious cause for concern for a country like India which has a huge population. In the worst-case scenario, we are looking at a re-vaccination of the entire population.
The discovery of the new COVID variant has upended global efforts to move on from two devastating waves of the coronavirus pandemic. A major cause for concern is the way the variant was able to fly under the radar. While the world was fixated on the Alpha and Delta variants, it looks like Omicron has been able to avoid detection and pop-up when it was least expected.
This raises the question of whether the world will get rid of this deadly virus or is it just the beginning of a never-ending cycle. Scientists will have already given a considerable number of hours to the study of the new COVID variant but even then it will take at least two weeks, at the minimum, to come up with concrete theories.
Even so, experts have already expressed fears that Omicron may not respond to monoclonal antibody therapy or cocktail treatment. Reports have also indicated that the variant is six times more infectious than the Delta variant. To add fuel to the fire, the new COVID variant may cause vaccine breakthrough infections. What this means is that vaccinated individuals become more susceptible to the very disease they were vaccinated against!
Is staying safe possible?
Although the mutation of the Omicron virus means that specific vaccines will be required, the general public can protect themselves by following strict COVID guidelines. Vaccination, use of masks, and avoiding large gatherings is vital as mutations happen.
According to the Director of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics and Professor of the Indian Institute of Science, Saumitra Das, vaccination and strict compliance with COVID-19 protocols was the only way to protect oneself. “It is too early to fully understand the extent of damage that this virus can cause. While vaccinations don’t cut transmission it does reduce the severity and number of subsequent deaths. It’s too early to understand the impact of this new mutation,” she added.
This is not the time to get complacent. Complacency will result in the classic case of out of the frying pan into the fire. Spreading awareness about COVID protocols and ensuring that they are followed to the letter is our best means of protection against a highly intelligent enemy.