New virus variants like Omicron are a reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529, On November 24, 2021. This new variant was first detected in specimens collected on November 11, 2021, in Botswana and on November 14, 2021, in South Africa. The Omicron variant has now been detected in many countries around the world. WHO reports that Omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet. Omicron is spreading quickly, threatening to replace the Delta variant as the dominant strain in many countries. According to WHO, Omicron poses a “very high” risk to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. There is still substantial uncertainty regarding Omicron and a lot of research underway to evaluate its transmissibility, severity and reinfection risk. At the present time, WHO is coordinating with researchers globally to better understand Omicron and its effect on global population.
What We Know about Omicron until now
The Omicron variant may spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus but how easily Omicron spreads compared to Delta remains unknown. It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including Delta virus.
CDC expects that anyone with Omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.
There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. Understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant may take up to several weeks.
All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.
Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (i.e., people with previous COVID-19 infection), as compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited.
Scientists are working to determine how well existing treatments for COVID-19 work. Based on changed genetic make-up of Omicron, some treatments may remain effective while others may be less effective.
Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant. However, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated may occur. With other variants, like Delta, vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. The recent emergence of Omicron further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters.
Researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available.
A study led by researchers at The University of Hong Kong provides very vital information about Omicron SARS-CoV-2 as follows:
Omicron SARS-CoV-2 replicates faster than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and Delta variant in the human bronchus.
At 24 hours after infection, Omicron variant replicates around 70 times higher than the Delta variant and the original SARS-CoV-2 virus.
It replicates less efficiently (more than 10 times lower) in the human lung tissue than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, which may suggest lower severity of disease.
By infecting many more people, it may cause more severe disease and death even though the virus itself may be less pathogenic.
Omicron variant can partially escape immunity from vaccines and past infection, and overall threat from Omicron variant is likely to be very significant.
Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron. More data are needed to know if Omicron infections, and especially reinfections and breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated, cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants.
Effectiveness of current tests and vaccines:
WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of Omicron on existing countermeasures, including current Tests and Vaccines. The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as we have seen with other variants as well. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests. According to Health Authorities, Vaccines remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19, slow transmission, and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging.
Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.
Effectiveness of current treatments such as Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers are expected to be still effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.
Recommended actions for people
Omicron virus spread is a grim reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. It is therefore essential that people get the vaccine when available to them and continue to follow existing advice on preventing the spread of the virus, including physical distancing, wearing masks, regular handwashing and keeping indoor areas well ventilated.
Omicron is spreading more quickly than other variants. Based on the information available, WHO believes it is likely that Omicron will outpace the Delta variant where there is COVID-19 transmission in the community. However, being vaccinated and taking precautions such as avoiding crowded spaces, keeping your distance from others, and wearing a mask are critical in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and we know these actions have been effective against other variants.
It is also crucial that vaccines and other public health measures are accessible everywhere. Health authorities continues to recommend wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, regardless of vaccination status. The most effective steps recommended for individuals that can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 meter from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated when it’s their turn.
UNICEF guidelines recommend everyone should get vaccinated even if one has previously had COVID-19. While those recovering from COVID-19 may develop some natural immunity to the virus, it’s not known yet how long it lasts or how well one is protected. Vaccines still offer more reliable protection.
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