Right around the time when people around the world started to relax a little from pandemic worries, news about the appearance of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant emerged from South Africa.
On November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the new strain as a variant of concern and named it Omicron. Omicron now joins seven other variants of concern that include the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants.
News that the new coronavirus variant has a number of mutations that could make it more transmissible and have the ability to avoid immune protection has generated anxiety around the world and people are waiting to know more about the impact of Omicron on their lives.
In the past, variants were designated “variants of concern” by the WHO and there was more time to study them before they become exposed to media attention. With Omicron, it all happened in less than two weeks.
Why is Omicron a ‘variant of concern’?
Omicron has 32 mutations in its spike protein. Whilst some of these are shared with other variants, the majority are novel mutations.
Right now, it is difficult for scientists to predict how the different mutations will affect immune response. Wendy Barclay, who leads a UK group studying new coronavirus variants worries that the ability of antibodies “will be compromised in their ability to neutralize the virus” due to the changes across its spike protein— though she cautioned that scientists need to study that question to confirm it.
Are vaccines effective against Omicron?
Since the first reporting of SARS-CoVID-2 from Wuhan, multiple variants have emerged over the past two years, and we can expect new variants to continue emerging. Vaccines have been developed rapidly and other therapeutics are coming along. Whilst the effectiveness of vaccines against emerging variants have shown diminished efficacy, booster doses have been added to increase host immunity. There has not been enough time yet to evaluate the detailed response/s against the new variant.
Right now, there are many unanswered questions. Intensive research currently underway will generate a host of answers. Key questions that will be answered will include:
- Level of protection provided by current vaccines
- Severity of disease in patients infected with this virus
- Transmissibility of Omicron
In the meantime, the major COVID vaccine manufacturers including Pfizer and Moderna are working on making an ‘Omicron-specific’ vaccine that will be available in about 3 months. In a recent interview, Pfizer’s Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten suggested that an Omicron-targeted booster might be made available by March. It’s likely that FDA might waive elaborate clinical trials for these variant-focused vaccines.
What can I do to keep safe?
The CDC has strengthened its guidance on boosters, saying all adults should get booster shots six months after ending the primary two doses of Moderna’s or Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine and two months after getting Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine.
So far, we know that there are no mutations that can cause a virus to overcome precautions like wearing of face masks, handwashing and physical distancing. Observing these guidelines should help protect against the Omicron variant also.
Should I be concerned?
While the appearance of Omicron might represent an initial setback in the fight to regain normalcy from the pandemic, most scientists and public health officials believe that the virus is unlikely to completely escape immunization generated by vaccination and prior infection.
With high vaccination rates and promising drugs on the horizon, a possible Omicron wave should be far less painful to weather than the Alpha and Delta ones. Booster shots lead to greater levels of antibodies that neutralize the virus, and also more diverse types of antibodies that give broader protection against new variants.
Omicron “is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a press briefing recently. “The best protection against this new variant or any of the various out there, the ones we’ve been dealing with already, is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot.”