Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Social media

Omicron variant: Everything we know

What is the new variant?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named the new B.1.1529 coronavirus variant “Omicron”, designating it as a variant of concern just weeks after it was first detected.

The announcement came on Friday amid growing concerns that it is highly transmissible and could reduce the efficacy of vaccines. However, given that Omicron only emerged recently, scientists believe it could take a few months before we have a more complete understanding of the scale of the threat it poses.

What is certain is that this variant, which descends from the B.1.1 lineage, is “unprecedented” and “very unusual” in the number of its mutations.

B.1.1529 has 32 mutations located in its spike protein. These include E484A, K417N and N440K, which are associated with helping the virus to escape detection from antibodies.

Another mutation, N501Y, appears to increase the ability of the virus to gain entry to our cells, making it more transmissible.

Where did it come from?

The variant was first spotted in Botswana on 11 November, where three cases have now been recorded.

Meanwhile in South Africa, where the first case was spotted on 14 November, 22 cases have now been recorded, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

More cases are expected to be confirmed in the country as sequencing results come out, with the South African government saying on Thursday that many of the Omicron cases were located in Gauteng province. It has also requested an urgent meeting with the WHO’s Covid technical working group.

An additional case has been identified in Hong Kong, involving a 36-year-old traveller – who had stayed in South Africa from 23 October to 11 November – and who tested positive three days into quarantine on his return home.

ALSO READ  Scientists warn of new Botswana variant of Covid-19 with high number of mutations

On Friday, Europe had its first confirmed case after an infection was reported in Belgium. Virologist Marc Van Ranst tweeted that the variant had been detected in a traveller who returned from Egypt earlier this month.

Scientists have said that the variant has more changes to its spike protein than any other they have seen. There are suggestions that it might have emerged from an immunocompromised person who harboured the virus for a long period of time, possibly someone with undiagnosed HIV/AIDS.

Professor Francois Balloux, the director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said that the variant’s mutations are in “an unusual constellation” that “accumulated apparently in a single burst”.

He explained that this indicates it could have evolved during a “chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient”.

So far, no cases of the variant have been recorded in the UK.

Is it resistant to vaccines?

The spike proteins which coat the outside of the Covid virus allow it to attach and gain entry to human cells. The vaccines train the body to recognise these spikes and neutralise them, therefore preventing infection of cells.

The 32 mutations detected in the new variant’s spike protein will change the shape of this structure, making it problematic for the immune response induced by the vaccines.

These mutations can make the spike protein less recognisable to our antibodies. As a result, they won’t be as effective at neutralising the virus, which is then able to slip past immune defences and cause infection.

ALSO READ  Tony Blair made Knight of the Garter in honour bestowed personally by the Queen

Should we be concerned?

Scientists have mixed opinions over whether or not we should be worried about the latest variant.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, warned that the variant could be “of real concern” due to its 32 mutations in its spike protein.

However, Prof Balloux said that at the moment there is “no reason to get overly concerned.”

Taking to Twitter, Dr Peacock wrote that the variant “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile” which could mean that it is more contagious than any other variant so far.

He said: “Export to Asia implies this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply.

“Also the extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern (predicted escape from most known monoclonal antibodies).”

But Dr Peacock said that he “hopes” the variant will turn out to be one of these “odd clusters” and that it will not be as transmissible as feared.

Meanwhile, Prof Balloux said that “it is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage.”

The professor explained: “For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analysed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future.”

Dr Meera Chand, the Covid-19 incident director at the UK Health Security Agency, said that the status of new Covid variants worldwide is constantly being monitored at random and that a small number of cases with “new sets of mutations” were “not unusual.”

ALSO READ  Ashley Graham announces birth of twin boys with husband Justin Ervin

She explained: “As it is in the nature of viruses to mutate often and at random, it is not unusual for small numbers of cases to arise featuring new sets of mutations. Any variants showing evidence of spread are rapidly assessed.”

Countries have started to act against the threat, with the UK adding Botswana, Eswatini, Namibia, Lesotho, South and Zimbabwe to the UK’s travel red list to stem the spread of the variant.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there is “huge international concern” about the Omicron variant, while Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), called its emergence “extremely worrying”.

“The molecular data is extremely worrying…the molecular data would point to that perhaps this thing might be able to evade the immune response,” he said.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.