Omicron outbreak; What is the new variant, why it is a variant of concern, explained

It has been about 2 years since the deadly coronavirus has interrupted the world’s known rhythm of functioning. As the world continues to fight with it, a new variant which WHO considers as a “variant of concern”-Omicron has been formed. It is not the first time that the variant of coronavirus surging over the world, delta being another deadly variant has also been one of the concerns. 

This time, South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus that they say is behind a recent spike in covid-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. The origin of this variant is unclear. On November 26,  the WHO designated it as a “variant of concern,” naming it “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.

New Variant ‘Omicron’

The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021.  Named ‘Omicron’, recently has been declared as the latest ‘variant of concern’ (VOC) by the apex global health body World Health Organization (WHO). According to WHO’s the official statement, “Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron.”

All variants are given scientific names that represent their parentage and the chain of evolution. Omicron, for example, is also known by its more scientific designation B.1.1.529, which shows that it has evolved from the B.1 lineage. The variant was first to name Nu or Xi which then changed due to some reasons. 

According to the scientists, this B.1.1.529 ‘Omicron’ variant, is a newly identified strain of Coronavirus with 30 plus different mutations in the Covid-19 spike protein which facilitates its transmission process.

The presence of these multiple mutations on the spike protein facilitates the virus’s entry into the body with more ease making the strain more dangerous. Apparently, this variant seems to have immunity against the available Covid-19 vaccines, which increases the threat, said WHO.

However, the symptoms were mild and her patients recovered fully without hospitalization. The Omicron patients reported extreme tiredness, mild muscle aches, a scratchy throat, and dry cough, the doctor told AFP. Only a few had a slightly high temperature. 

WHO warns nothing but to take precautionary measures and to be more vigilant as the variant has been identified much more deadly than delta variants. Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of Covid-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving the ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.

Scientists know that omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants including the beta and delta variants, but do not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication the variant causes more severe disease.

Besides South Africa, the virus variant has now been detected in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Canada. Many countries have imposed travel bans or curbs on Southern Africa to try to stem the spread. Financial markets dived on Friday, and oil prices tumbled. 

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However, it is not yet clear whether infection with ‘Omicron’ causes more severe disease. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. Meanwhile, WHO is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron. Studies currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, the severity of infection (including symptoms), the performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and the effectiveness of treatments.    

The WHO currently lists 5 variants of concern:

  • Omicron (B.1.1.529), identified in southern Africa in November 2021
  • Delta (B.1.617.2), which emerged in India in late 2020 and spread around the world
  • Gamma (P.1), which emerged in Brazil in late 2020
  • Beta (B.1.351), which emerged in South Africa in early 2020
  • Alpha (B.1.1.7), which merged in Britain in late 2020
  • Variants of interest