By Kadeem Joseph
With the World Health Organization’s (WHO) announcement last Friday that a new concerning variant of the Covid-19 virus had been detected in Southern Africa, warnings that this virus is here to stay were jolted into sharp focus once more.
To date, this virus and its variants of concern have proven deadly for over five million people globally and scientists are working feverishly to determine how the newly-dubbed Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern compares to the wild type (original) virus and other concerning variations like the globally dominant Delta variant.
This new variant is setting off alarms in the scientific community because preliminary studies have shown major mutations in the spike protein of the virus. This aspect of the virus functions as a major part in the mechanism of virus attachment to human cells, generally affecting Covid’s ability to enter the cells it targets.
On Wednesday, the WHO hosted a press briefing sharing the latest information on this new variant and what it could mean for the globe.
Is the Omicron variant more transmissible?
Word on whether this mutation provides a fitness advantage to the virus making it more transmissible is still uncertain. Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who serves as the Technical Lead on Covid-19 for the WHO, explained that there is some suggestion that this variant has increased infectivity. “It’s early days. We expect to have more information on transmission within days, not necessarily weeks,” she said.
How severe is the Omicron variant?
While this question arguably is one of the most important questions concerning this new variant of concern, the answer, though simple, can be a little troubling.
While Omicron, based on examined characteristics, has the potential to cause more severe disease, there just is not enough evidence to support a definitive conclusion.
According to Dr Van Kerkhove, health officials have seen cases ranging from mild to severe in individuals infected with this variant.
“There is also a suggestion of increased hospitalisations across South Africa, but that could be because of the fact that we have more cases and if you have more cases, you will have more hospitalisations,” she added.
What measures should be implemented to guard against the Omicron variant?
The advice remains the same on the issue of helping to reduce the further spread of Covid-19 and its varying forms. In fact, Dr Van Kerkhove warns that the more the virus circulates, the more infections there will be which will lead to more deaths.
She suggests that all the measures which were implemented to reduce the impact of the Delta variant of the virus, should be employed with Omicron and strengthened. This includes reinforcing the need for physical distancing, mask wearing and good hygiene practices.
Do present vaccines offer protection against this new variant?
Chief Scientist at the WHO, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, explained that countries should still seek to strengthen vaccine coverage, especially amongst vulnerable populations.
“We know that it’s people above 45 with underlying comorbidities who are at highest risk of developing severe disease after getting infection, whether it’s Omicron, Delta or any of the variants, and we know that vaccines are likely to give some protection.
“We still need to find out if there is any loss of protection but we think that vaccines will still protect against severe disease as they have against the other variants,” she explained further.
What is the WHO’s stance on Covid-19 booster shots?
For Dr Michael Ryan, the Executive Director of the WHO, being in a place where a country has enough vaccines to consider booster shots is a “luxurious” one and vulnerable populations should be the focus of booster shots.
While adding that the main focus of governments should be expanding vaccination coverage in the face of the Delta and Omicron variants, Dr Ryan said, “Right now, there is no evidence that I am aware of that would suggest boosting the entire population is going to necessarily provide any greater protection for otherwise healthy individuals against hospitalisation or death.
“The real risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death lies in particularly at-risk and vulnerable individuals who do require protection against all variants of Covid-19.”
Dr Soumya Swaminathan noted that health officials are still evaluating the need for booster shots and how they should be administered, if at all, but there is still a need for wider vaccination coverage against the virus.