The World Health Organisation has enlisted Omicron to be a variant of concern. Just scroll down the article to know about this COVID variant, why it is named Omicron, and the reason for it to be included in the list of Variants of Concern.
Omicron, the new potentially more contagious COVID variant, was first identified in South Africa. It has popped up in several other countries, leaving governments to shut down travel from South Africa to stop the transmission. Viruses keep changing over time, resulting in the formation of a new variant or strain. This is to be expected as viruses mutate all the time. This variant usually does not affect how the virus works, but sometimes it can make it act differently than the original virus. This is what is happening with Coronavirus. Health experts and scientists are tracking new variants developing from the original SARS-CoV-2. They are working towards understanding more about the new variants if they are spreading faster and are there any potential changes in the severity. And one significant question that presses or puts pressure on the health experts is, can the vaccines still be effective against this new variant?
Coronaviruses have their genetic material in RNA (ribonucleic acid). The viruses infect the individual, attach to their cells, and enter the cells making copies of the RNA, which help them to spread. When there is a mistake while copying, there are changes taking place in the RNA. These changes are referred to as mutations. These changes happen randomly and are a normal part of what happens to the viruses as they multiply and spread. As these changes are random, they cause little to no difference in the individual's health. When a virus undergoes random changes making it easier to infect people, this variant becomes more common and a concern.
There are new variants developing over time and circulating across the world. WHO designated variant B.1.1.529 as a Variant of Concern and named it Omicron. This variant has more mutations and some of which are concerning. They have been naming the prevalent Coronavirus variants using Greek letters to avoid long scientific names. WHO has already used 12 Greek letters to name the previous variants and has thereby named this variant from South Africa as Omicron, and its scientific designation is B.1.1.529. The scientific designation represents their parentage and the chain of evolution, and this Omicron variant has evolved from B.1 lineage.
New variants developing over time are not something unexpected. It was probably an expected happening as viruses mutate over time. A SARS-CoV-2 variant is designated as a "Variant of Concern" if it fulfills the following criteria:
A variant that is known to affect the characteristics of the virus. The characteristics include transmissibility, the severity of the disease, and immune escape.
A variant that is considered to cause significant community transmission causes an increase in the number of positive cases or any other factors that suggest an emerging risk to global public health.
Omicron was listed in the variants of concern as there was preliminary evidence suggesting an increased risk of reinfection associated with this variant. The number of COVID cases of this variant appeared to be rising in almost all parts of South Africa. From various diagnostic labs, this variant has been noticed to spread at faster rates than the previous surges. They also suggest that this variant has a growth advantage. Through a comparative analysis, this Omicron variant was put under the category of Variants of Concern as it was associated with one or more of the following criteria:
Transmission is detected at faster rates.
Increase in virulence.
Change in the clinical disease presentation.
Decrease in the efficacy of the available diagnostics against this variant.
Are the Same Diagnostic Methods Sufficient to Detect Omicron Variant?
The accepted and commonly used diagnostic method is RT-PCR (rapid transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction) method. In this method, specific genes in the virus such as Spike (S), Enveloped (E), and Nucleocapsid (N) are detected to confirm the presence of the virus. But in the case of Omicron, since this S gene is heavily mutated, certain primers may result in the absence of the S gene. The absence of the S gene is indicative of the Omicron variant. However, for final diagnosis, genomic sequencing may be required.
To contain the transmission, health experts from the World Health Organisation are recommending all the countries to follow the below-given measures:
They are asked to enhance the surveillance, perform field investigations, and diagnostic laboratory analyses to better understand the risks of the variants on severity, the effectiveness of the available therapeutics, immune response, and antibody neutralization against the new variant.
WHO recommends that various countries should report the initial cases associated with Omicron infection through the IHR mechanism, and they also suggest submitting the complete genome sequence to a publicly available database.
The countries should implement effective public health measures to contain COVID-19 circulation across the nation.
The inequities in access to the COVID-19 vaccines should be addressed so that the vulnerable populations receive their vaccination.
Individuals are reminded to continue following all the COVID protocols and proven public health measures such as:
Wear tight-fitting masks. You can also prefer wearing double masks to ensure adequate protection.
Try to cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue.
Maintain proper hand hygiene by regularly washing your hands with soap and water.
Maintain social distancing with a minimum distance of six feet from others.
Avoid going to crowded places.
Improve ventilation of the indoor spaces.
Above all, stop turning an ear to the rumors about vaccination and get vaccinated if you are still not vaccinated.
Researchers are undertaking studies and research regarding the transmissibility of this variant to know if it is more transmissible than the previous variants, the severity of the infection, and symptoms associated with the Omicron variant.
More information will pop up in the coming weeks as health experts are continuously monitoring the variant to assess how mutations in Omicron can alter the behavior of the virus. Whatever and how many mutations occur, following all the COVID-19 protocols can help contain the virus and break the chain of transmission.
Last reviewed at:
15 Dec 2021 - 4 min read
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