The World Health Organization (WHO) designated a novel SARS-CoV-2 mutation presently propagating in South Africa as a 'variant of concern' on Friday. It was also given the name Omicron.
The mutation was discovered on Monday by the Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA). It had discovered a cluster of SARS-CoV-2 viruses that belonged to the B.1.1.529 lineage. According to preliminary findings, this version could be even more communicable than that of the extremely contagious Delta form, and existing vaccinations may be less efficient against it.
What do we know about Omicron so far anyway?
As SARS-CoV-2 progresses, new variations occur, and the relevance of each mutation is discovered after some time. However, health officials throughout the world must keep a close eye about which ones are more vital than others. The NGS-SA discovered B.1.1.529 as part of such an experiment.
B.1.1.529 has several spike protein mutations, according to what is currently known, and early study shows it is highly contagious. Over the previous two weeks, South Africa has seen a four-fold spike in new cases, corresponding with the appearance of B.1.1.529.
B.1.1.529 has rapidly expanded in Gauteng province, which contains Johannesburg and Pretoria, according to the NGS-SA, and may be present in most provinces. Cluster outbreaks, according to the NGS-SA, may be behind the ongoing increase in incidence.
What are the alterations that make this variation unique?
The new variety B.1.1.529 contains "quite odd constellations of mutations," according to the NGS-SA, with 30 in the area that produces the spike protein, which is important for the virus's entrance into human cells.
Several of the alterations are well-characterized, having a known phenotypic influence on transmissibility and adaptive evasion, according to the study. In the Alpha and Delta forms, several of these alterations have previously been discovered. Many additional variants, however, have been "rarely found till recently and not adequately defined," according to the NGS-SA.
As a result, the entire relevance of all these alterations is unknown at this time. "More research is being conducted to identify the possible impact of these mutations on the virus's potential to spread more efficiently, to influence vaccine successfulness and sidestep immune response, and/or to cause more severe or milder disease," the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said (CDC)
Which of these alterations should you be concerned about?
According to the NGS-SA, a group of mutations identified as H655Y + N679K + P681H is linked to more effective cell entrance, implying increased risk of transmission.
Also there is a nsp6 removal, which is comparable to the deletions seen in the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Lambda forms. According to the NGS-SA, this might be linked to resistance of host defense, which would increase transmissibility. The new variety has the R203K+G204R mutation, which is also seen in Alpha, Gamma, and Lambda and is linked to higher infectivity.
What is the WHO's opinion?
The WHO's technical advisory panel convened on Friday to assess the fresh batch and label it as a variation of concerns, according to the WHO. This practically indicates that Omicron has indeed been linked to one or more of the following changes: increased factors should be considered; and reduced efficiency of diagnostics, vaccinations, and treatments.
"This variation has been found and communicated to us by our colleagues in South Africa," Maria Van Kerkohove, Covid-19 Technical Lead at WHO, said earlier in the day in a statement. There are just a few hundred whole-genome sequencing accessible. We don't understand enough about it at the moment. We do know that his variation has a significant level of genetic diversity. And there's a fear that having so many mutations would have an influence on how the virus acts."
Is there a difference in the symptoms?
According to the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), "no unique indications" have been observed as a result of contamination with the B.1.1.529 strain. It has drawn awareness to the " that, like other infectious variations like Delta, some people are asymptomatic.
How will scientists assess the efficacy of vaccines and the severity of disease?
The clinical and epidemiological association of Omicron hasn't been firmly demonstrated. Without it, scientists will be unable to draw a direct relationship between the wave and any other factor. In a laboratory environment, South Africa has begun to investigate the immunological escape potential of B.1.1.529. This will also reveal how well existing immunizations are working. It has also set up a real-time system to track hospitalizations and the B.1.1.529-related outcomes. The information will indicate if the gene is linked to illness severity or whether it has an impact on the efficacy of therapeutic drugs used in hospitals.
In RT-PCR assays, how simple or difficult is it to identify the new variant?
B.1.1.529 contains a duplication inside the S gene, according to the South African NICD, which enables for easy recognition of this variation.
"However, most other targets (including the N and RdRp genes) are unchanged from specimens were tested in over 100 specimens from Gauteng testing facilities, therefore overall PCR test sensitivity is unlikely to be altered." "Typically, these PCR assays identify at least two separate SARS-CoV-2 targets, which provides as a backup in the event of a mutation in one," according to the NICD.
What safeguards should be taken?
Immunization is vital, according to all professional authorities, particularly for those at elevated danger of hospitalisation. High vaccination rates also minimise the load on health systems, according to real-time statistics.
The advent of new modified version demonstrates that the pandemic is far from over — and that Covid-appropriate behaviour and attitude, such as masking, social distancing, adequate ventilation in all shared spaces, and regularly washing or sanitising hands and surfaces, is critical for breaking the chain of transmission.