We all know about the Delta variant. But, now there’s a new one: the Omicron variant.
I’m sure you’ve heard about it on the news, but let’s take a closer look as to what makes this variant different and why it is of concern.
Epidemiologists and virologists have been closely following a new COVID-19 mutation called B.1.1.529; on November 26, it was classified as a variant and named “Omicron.”
B.1.1.529 was first discovered in Botswana on November 11, then was quickly identified in South Africa and Hong Kong around three days later. At the time of this writing, Omicron has not been found in the US (although it is possible that there are already a couple thousand cases here that have just not yet been reported).
B.1.1.529 is concerning mostly because of the amount of mutations; it has 32 mutations on the spike protein alone--the main target for vaccines. In comparison, Delta only had 9 changes on the spike protein. Significant changes to the spike protein mean that it can increase transmissibility, make vaccines less effective, and increase severity. However, it will take a while to fully understand this variant’s effects.
The good news is that B.1.1.529 is detectable on a PCR test. Usually a sample would have to be genetically sequenced in a lab to know which variant caused the infection. This means that the virus is much easier to track.
South Africa has also been pretty exemplary as far as communication and controlling the situation; because of their action, we were able to catch the virus incredibly early. Also, if we were to need a new vaccine, it wouldn’t be too difficult to do so because mRNA vaccines are really easy to alter. And, because the modification would be so small, a Phase III clinical trial wouldn’t be required.
There’s still a lot that we don’t know about this variant, mostly concerning vaccine efficacy and if this variant will outcompete Delta. For now, stay safe.