What you need to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

A new variant of the coronavirus that causes covid-19 is causing concern around the world.

South Africa confirmed Thursday that scientists have detected a variant there with a high number of mutations that could make it more easily transmitted. The World Health Organization on Friday called it a “variant of concern,” a classification designated for only four other variants so far. The World Health Agency also gave it a Greek letter: omicron.

Some countries, including the United States, decided Friday to close flights from southern Africa, while pharmaceutical manufacturers have pledged to closely monitor the resistance of their vaccines to the new variant.

So far, there is too little research to draw any conclusions, with experts urging caution but not panic.

“This is the most concerning variant we have seen from delta,” Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said in an interview Friday. “It will take a really high bar for something to take over for delta, and we don’t know if that will.”

Here’s what you need to know.

Where has omicron been confirmed?

Although it is not known where the variant came from, it was first detected in the southern region of Africa. Scientists in South Africa released data from the variant on Tuesday. Noticing the distinct streak, Imperial College London virologist Tom Peacock sounded the alarm about the “truly horrific Spike mutation profile.”

In South Africa, where only 35 percent of people are fully vaccinated, the variant has started to spread rapidly. A number of factors could be contributing to the increase in the number of cases, including the country’s low vaccination rate. Researchers are also working to determine whether mutations make the variant more easily transmitted or whether it has a mechanism that allows the variant to escape a natural or vaccine-acquired immune response.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Ian Sanne, an infectious disease specialist and member of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Council on covid-19, said, “Overall, we think it’s more transmissible. “.

So far, several dozen cases have also been identified in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel. But officials in a number of countries are warning that the variant, also known as B.1.1.529, could already spread undetected.

The UK reported on Friday that although there are no cases detected there, the large number of mutations in the variant “are likely biologically significant.”

Scientists have warned that while more cases are expected to arise, it is not clear whether the variant will fit the scope of the delta variant, by far the most dominant in the world, according to the WHO.

“It’s worrying, but it’s still uncertain,” Topol said.

What do we know about the variant?

While there is still a lot to learn, scientists have confirmed some important details.

On the one hand, its genetic profile is unique compared to other circulating variants, which means that it represents a new lineage of the virus.

The new variant differs from other variants in another critical way: there is a greater number of mutations. The “very unusual constellation of mutations”, with over 30 in the spike protein, is of “concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in Africa from South.

But the wide array of mutations doesn’t necessarily make the variant a greater threat, experts say, who warn that more research is needed.

“The only good news, if there is any good news, is that this variant, B.1.1.529, can be detected by a particular PCR test,” de Oliveira said at a press conference. , which means diagnostic labs can quickly identify the new variant rather than having to rely on whole genome sequencing.

However, scientists warn that several of the mutations could raise concerns.

Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who conducted mutational scanning experiments for the B.1.1.529 variant, noted that three mutations in the variant could make the virus a more elusive target for antibodies produced by vaccines or a previous infection.

“What this is going to mean for the likelihood of people getting infected, even if they’ve been vaccinated, it’s too early to tell,” Bloom said, noting that more traditional experiments should provide more data. “But having a decrease in antibody neutralization is never a good thing.”

What are we doing about it?

A few days after the variant was discovered, some counties began to impose travel restrictions to and from South Africa and its neighbors.

Britain, Singapore, Japan and Israel have announced travel bans or quarantine rules for air passengers arriving from the southern African region. The European Union and the United States have also announced restrictions on flights from southern Africa.

US restrictions will apply to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. They do not apply to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. President Biden, in a statement, said the move was “a precautionary measure” and urged Americans to get vaccinated and get vaccinated.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated or if you haven’t taken your children to be vaccinated, now is the time,” he said.

South African officials have expressed concern over travel bans. The country’s Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla, called them a “drastic reaction”.

“It really doesn’t sound scientific in any way,” he said. “This kind of reaction is quite instinctive and panicked and almost wants to blame other countries rather than working together.”

Do we know if vaccines are effective?

Even though the variant limits the effectiveness of vaccines, it is unlikely to completely subvert the protections provided by vaccines, experts say.

“I would expect that mutations in this variant would not be removed or completely escape this type of antibody neutralization” from vaccines or a previous infection, said Bloom.

“Whether or not this new variant ends up spreading, I would suggest that people do what they can to minimize their chances of getting infected with SARS-CoV-2,” Bloom added, referring to the virus by his technical name. “There are some obvious things you can do: get immunized, boost, wear a mask. “

Although the sample size is still small, Sanne said doctors have seen a higher rate of breakthrough infections among those previously vaccinated in South Africa. But he added that initial data indicates vaccines are still proving effective, with the majority of hospitalizations being among those that had not been vaccinated.

“We have all the indications that vaccines are still effective in preventing serious illnesses and / or complications,” he said. “The data, however, is small and early.”

Meanwhile, vaccine makers, who have done preliminary research using vaccines with formulations suitable for other variants, are monitoring the omicron variant.

“In the event that a vaccine breakout variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a bespoke vaccine against this variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval,” he said. a Pfizer spokesperson said in a statement.

Given the spread of B.1.1.529 in South Africa, several experts have highlighted the critical need to vaccinate underserved countries to strengthen global protection against future, more evasive variants.

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