Omicron: A Variant Of Concern

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The latest Covid-19 variant, initially referred to as B.1.1.529 was first detected by South African scientists. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association was the first doctor to flag cases of this variant from a specimen collected on November 9th, 2021. Then the World Health Organization named it Omicron after the letter in the Greek alphabet. Since then it has spread to 38 countries including the U.S., Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Australia.

The symptoms are extremely mild with a “scratchy throat” rather than a sore throat and no cough or loss of smell and taste as associated with most of the other coronavirus (CoV). Most cases detected in South Africa were asymptomatic, with no indications that Omicron is any worse than Delta. The World Health Organization still doesn‘t have sufficient information on the transmissibility of Omicron.

How dangerous is the omicron?

  • The Omicron variant has over 50 mutations, including 32 mutations just on the spike protein.
  • The virus uses the spike protein to attach itself to our cells and infect us.
  • 15 of the mutations are in a part of the spike protein that binds to specific antibodies and ACE-2 receptors.
  • Microbiologists fear that the virus can easily enter the human body and infect us via ACE-2 receptors found in our noses.
  • The new variant is expected to evade our immune systems better than other variants.
  • Scientists believe this variant spreads quicker and has a higher transmission rate.

How did omicron get created?

Researchers have been studying the virus’s genome and this variant seemed to have evolved from a strain that was circulating in mid-2020. In the intervening months, there have been no traces of all the intermediate versions until they morphed into their current form. Scientific investigation of omicron is still happening with new information coming out every moment that older views on its origins could change. But as of now, scientists are hypothesizing below three sources as Omicron’s origin.

Animal sources: Since mid-2020 the strain infected some unknown animal populations, evolved, and then spilled back over to humans.

Hidden spread in an unmonitored region: Another possibility, from the mid-2020 the strain started circulating in an unmonitored location, evolved, becoming more transmissible, and exploding now.

Incubation within an immunocompromised person: The virus could be hiding inside the body of a person whose immune system was suppressed but strong enough to prevent it from killing the person. The virus continually reproduced, replicated, and finally evaded the person’s antibody-producing immune cells, spreading into others.

Why does source matter?

A coronavirus infects the target cell either by cytoplasmic or endosomal membrane fusion, releasing RNA into the cytoplasm for replication. The fusion capacity indicates the infectivity of the corresponding virus. Researchers are looking at three specific mutations known as a Furin cleavage site. Furin is an enzyme that SARS-CoV-2 needs to become fully functional and develop as a disease in the human body. If omicron evolved in one person’s body and then recently spread to a wider population in a shorter time period, then it suggests the variant as highly transmissible. Omicron’s source will help scientists to assess the potential threat.

Regardless of the origin, the development of omicron warns us that dangerous future COVID-variants can be created. Scientists believe that vaccines should hold well in terms of preventing hospitalizations. Also, the WHO report states, “Despite uncertainties, it is reasonable to assume that currently available vaccines offer some protection against severe disease and death” that may be caused by this variant.

 

Sources

Aizenman, Nurith. “The Mystery of Where Omicron Came from – and Why It Matters.” NPR, NPR, 1 Dec. 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/12/01/1055803031/the-mystery-of-where-omicron-came-from-and-why-it-matters.