SRINAGAR: Right now as the world is desperately trying to contain the impact of the Delta variant of the virus behind Covid19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has detected a potentially much dangerous variant and named it Omicron. Though its complete characteristics are still unknown, it is believed that the highly mutated strain spreads much faster and hardly cares about vaccination.
The pandemic that killed 5210000 people the world over led to the phenomenal morbidity of more than 26 crore people. It dented world economies and dictated a new Covid19 lifestyle.
A World Health Organization panel on Friday named the variant (B.1.1.529 ) as omicron and classified it as “a highly transmissible virus of concern”, which puts it in the same category as the predominant delta variant that dominates the scene in Europe and the United States.
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution met today to review what is known about the #COVID19 variant B.1.1.529.
They advised WHO that it should be designated a Variant of Concern.
WHO has named it Omicron, in line with naming protocols https://t.co/bSbVas9yds pic.twitter.com/Gev1zIt1Ek
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 26, 2021
Omicron’s actual risks are still being investigated. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that it carries an increased risk of re-infection. That means the people who recovered from the infection earlier run the risk of a new attack.
Viruses, as is common knowledge, change with the passage of time. The virologists with the WHO has classified its variants into two main categories – the Viruses of Interest (VoI) and Viruses of Concern (VoC). Right now, the WHO has put two variants in the VoI category and five including the Omicron in the VoC category. The American CDC, however, has 10 variants in its Viruses Being Monitored (VBM) category.
The Omicron, according to The Nature was detected in Botswana (South Africa) in early November. It was later traced in Hong Kong as a traveller carried it.
By The Way, What Is In The Name?
Regardless of the scare, it triggered across the globe, the media is battling over why the new variant was named omicron.
Virologists normally give scientific identities to the variants. At one stage, there was a suggestion to name the variants on basis of the place of origin. It was not accepted because it would give stigma to the region. However, in order to help commoners to understand it better, they have been naming the variants as per Greek alphabets.
So far, 12 variants have been named after 12 alphabets. But this time, the WHO skipped two and named the (B.1.1.529 ) variantOmicron. Reportage available on the subject suggests that it was supposed to be named Nu but it was avoided because it would simply convey as if it is new which is incorrect. The subsequent alphabet was Xi and seemingly it was avoided not to link it with Chinese President Xi Jinping
The Greek alphabets were in vogue since the late ninth or early eighth century BC and have evolved from the earlier Phoenician alphabet. These are said to be the first alphabetic script in history to have distinct letters for vowels as well as consonants.
“We’re flying at warp speed,” Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, told The Nature. His laboratory is gauging the variant’s potential to dodge immunity from vaccines and previous infections. Though there are anecdotal reports of re-infections and of cases in vaccinated individuals, Moore said “at this stage, it’s too early to tell anything”.
South Africa’s scientific community is working on the mutation profile of the variant and early indications are not very positive. “The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic,” Richard Lessells, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, told media.
Researchers working on Omicron’s genome sequencing said “it contains more than 30 changes to the spike protein”, including some already detected in Delta and Alpha variants. Some of these changes, they said, “are linked to heightened infectivity and the ability to evade infection-blocking antibodies”. Its spike mutation, however, allows its quick detection in genotyping tests.
“Many mutations we know are problematic, but many more look like they are likely contributing to further evasion,” Moore told The Nature. “There are even hints from computer modelling that B.1.1.529 could dodge immunity conferred by another component of the immune system called T cells.”
South Africa apart, Omicron has now been seen in travellers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. Fears of more pandemic-induced economic turmoil caused stocks to tumble in Asia, Europe and the United States. Some countries have restricted travel in quick follow up to the detection of the new variant. After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing.
The US has not a single case of this variant so far. But it has imposed travel restrictions to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The UK banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries. Canada banned the entry of all foreigners who have travelled to southern Africa in the last two weeks. The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals travelling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and take three COVID-19 tests during that time. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals. Russia announced travel restrictions effective Sunday.
Some communicable disease experts have linked it to the greed that the rich nations exhibited the vaccine distribution. Less than six per cent population in Africa is vaccinated unlike more than two-third in the so-called civilised world.
“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton, was quoted by Miami Herald says. He urged the Group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses.”
The WHO has issued a detailed statement on the new variant. Here it is being published completely:
“The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) is an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behaviour of the virus. The TAG-VE was convened on 26 November 2021 to assess the SARS-CoV-2 variant: B.1.1.529.
The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.
This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as a marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.
There are a number of studies underway and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with Member States and to the public as needed.
Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron.
As such, countries are asked to do the following:
enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.
submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.
report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.
where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.
Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving the ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.”