Another Variant? The Knowns and The Unknowns

Almost two years living into a pandemic where every day we hear yet another horrible news related straight to Covid – 19. Unquestionable uncertainties remain, yet “the knowns” about how the virus behaves are considerable. 

Last week, the Omicron variant arising in countries of southern Africa rang the panic bells much more promptly, while better international collaboration between scientists and health authorities means a global response is being scaled up rapidly.  Although sensible precautionary measures have been enforced, the variant is spreading rapidly just like it happened two years back for the SARS-CoV-1 virus. 

What Do We Know So Far? 

This variant contains a considerable number of mutations: 50 in total, with 10 in the spike protein’s “the receptor binding domain.” This indicates that it arose from a long-term infection in an immunocompromised individual.

A high number of mutations does not imply that the variant poses a greater threat, though it may make it more likely to look different to the immune system. 

If it fails to recognise it, there may be “immune escape” with people who have recovered from a previous Covid-19 infection or who have been previously vaccinated, failing to recognise the virus and falling sick despite prior immunity.

The variant is fast spreading across Africa, either that it is more infectious than earlier strains or that immunity to it is low. Even if vaccinations are effective, more people would need to be vaccinated and immune in order to prevent a wider spread. 

What Is Still in The Dark About Omicron? 

The main concern about the new variant is that we don’t know how transmissible it is, and if vaccines will be less effective especially in curbing severity of the disease. Frantic efforts are being made to answer the transmissibility question. So far, the existing vaccines have proven to be effective against the predominant Delta variant to reduce severe disease and death, although they are less effective in preventing infection and reinfection.

So far, Europe has only received “imported cases”. When there is local spread within a population – not linked to international travel. To get more into knowing about Omicron, we will have to see how much transmissibility there is in the typical European population.

Will this newly developed variant change this existing balance? That answer has not been made available yet, so reimposing restrictions is warranted.

Given that the world has not made provision for poorer countries in terms of vaccines. The current condition leaves more room for new more dangerous variants to emerge. That being said, a number of borders have been closed for a couple of countries. 

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