EXPLAINER: What we know and don’t know about omicron variant

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The World Health Organization says it may still take some time to get a full picture of the threat posed by Omicron, a new form of the coronavirus, as scientists around the world scramble to assess its many mutations.

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Stock markets rallied last week after scientists in South Africa identified a new variant of what appears to be behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in the country’s most populous province, some public gatherings cancelled, and some public gatherings around the world. Countries suspended incoming flights.

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Over the weekend, the list of countries seeing the new version among travelers grew. Portugal detected 13 cases linked to the new variant among members of a single soccer club – only one of whom had recently traveled to South Africa.

On Friday, the WHO designated it as a “type of concern”, the most severe designation of a COVID-19 variant, and called it “omicron”, a move to avoid and simplify stigmatizing countries of origin. The Greek alphabet is the latest entry in the classification system designed for understand.


What do we know about OMICRON?

It said it was not clear whether Omicron is more permeable — spread more easily between people — than other variants such as the highly transmissible delta variant. It said it was not clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease, even citing data from South Africa showing increased rates of hospitalization there – but that just Maybe it’s because more people are getting infected with COVID-19, especially not Omicron.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to more than 3,200 on Saturday in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng.

It now accounts for up to 90% of new cases in Gauteng, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform.

“There is currently no information to suggest that the symptoms associated with omicron are different from those of other types,” the WHO said. It said there is no evidence – yet – that vaccines, tests and treatments for COVID are less effective against the newer version.


Why are scientists concerned about this new version?

So far, the main difference with other types appears to be that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron – in other words, people who already have COVID-19 can become reinfected more easily. Huh.

The variant appears to have a higher number of mutations – about 30 – in the spike protein of the coronavirus, which can affect how easily it spreads among people.

Some experts say this could mean that vaccine manufacturers may have to adapt their products at some point.

Sharon Peacock, who leads the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 at the University of Cambridge in the UK, said the data so far suggests that the mutation in the new variant is “consistent with increased transmissibility”, but added that “the importance of multiple mutations is” still not known. ,

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described Omicron as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we’ve ever seen,” potentially containing worrying changes that had never before been observed in a single virus.


What sets OMICRON apart?

Scientists know that Omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but do not know whether these genetic changes make it more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more severe disease.

It may take several weeks to find out whether Omicron is more contagious and whether vaccines against it are still effective.

Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines would not work, given that they are effective against many other types.

“We don’t know if this new version can get a foothold in areas where there is a delta,” said Peacock from the University of Cambridge. “The jury is out on how well this version will do where other variants are airing.”

To date, Delta is by far the most dominant form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of the sequences deposited in the world’s largest public database.


How did this new version arise?

The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new forms, including those with worrying genetic changes, often die. Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that can make the disease more transmissible or lethal, but they can’t determine that just by looking at the virus.

Peacock said the variant “could have developed in someone who was infected, but then could not clear the virus, giving the virus a chance to evolve genetically,” in a scenario as experts think about the alpha variant. I think – which was first identified in England – also emerged by mutating in an immune-compromised individual.

Are the travel restrictions justified?

Depends on who you ask.

Israel is banning foreigners from entering the country and Morocco has halted all incoming international air travel. Millions of countries in Europe, North America, Africa, and beyond restricted flights from Southern Africa.

Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease specialist at Imperial College London, said given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, it is “prudent” to restrict travel from the region and give authorities more time. Will give

But the WHO noted that such restrictions are often limited in their effect and urged countries to keep borders open.

South Africa’s government said the country was being treated unfairly because it has advanced genomic sequencing and can detect variants early and asked other countries to reconsider travel restrictions.


Medical Writer Maria Cheng reports from London.


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. is solely responsible for all content.


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