After Alpha, Beta, Gamma and the deadliest Delta COVID variant, all-new B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 has put countries around the world on high alert. Just as the world is slowly reopening after almost two years of pandemic and lockdowns, health experts fear the new variant might change the dynamics soon.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the new COVID variant of the B.1.1.529 strain, first detected in South Africa, as variant of concern (VOC) and renamed it Omicron. This new variant has the scientific community worried, as they fear that this new strain could fuel outbreaks in several countries and cripple health systems once again.
Over 100 cases have been detected in South Africa, where the new strain is slowly becoming the dominant one. The classification puts Omicron into the most-troubling category of COVID-19 variants.
Many countries, including India, have rushed to take precautionary measures to slow the spread of this new super variant. The news of Omicron has already taken a toll on stock markets and oil prices, delivering a blow to the global economy, which is already in a slow-paced path to recovery.
What's most concerning is that the new variant is spreading scarily fast, much faster than other variants of concern, including Delta. The Financial Times showed an illustration of the speed at which the new variant is rising.
"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," the WHO said, pointing to worrying characteristics. "Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs."
Prof. Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation near Cape Town, said that it remains to be seen if the vaccines will work against Omicron, but scientists expect it to hold against hospitalisations and deaths.
"Vaccines are the strongest weapon in our arsenal to fight that virus," he said.
Five reasons why Omicron is worrisome
- The 'B.1.1.529' variant has many more mutations than scientists expected, especially after a severe third wave, which was driven by the Delta variant. Many of the mutations are of concern for immune evasion and transmissibility, warn SA health officials.
- Omicron carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus' entry into cells in the human body. The B.1.1.529 variant has 50 mutations overall, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone which is the target of most current COVID vaccines.
- The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant. Scientists have said it is the most heavily mutated version yet, which means vaccines, which were designed using the original strain from Wuhan in China, may not be as effective. WHO has officially designated Omicron a variant of concern.
- First identified in South Africa this week, the strain has spread to nearby countries, including Botswana. Israel has identified a case of a COVID-19 variant with a large number of mutations "in a person who returned from Malawi". Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong. India has called for rigorous screening of passengers from South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.
- There are still speculations floating around the variant's origin. According to Francois Balloux, Director of the London-based UCL Genetics Institute, the new strain "likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient".
India takes precautions
The Indian Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan on Thursday rolled out an advisory to all states and UTs about multiple cases of COVID-19 variant B.1.1529 identified In Botswana, Hong Kong and South Africa. These countries are already on the "at-risk" list of international travellers coming to India.
India said it will resume scheduled commercial international passenger services from December 15. However, the government said there will be a calibrated resumption of operations from the countries recognised as "at-risk" by the Health Ministry. There are over 10 countries in the "at-risk" list including countries in Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana and China amongst others.
Karnataka government has taken note of the global concern regarding Omicron and has started rigorous screening and testing of international arrivals. The government is adopting a three-pronged surveillance strategy of screening and testing international travellers and their contacts, routine sentinel surveillance and surge surveillance, and timely sending of RT-PCR positive samples to designated INSACoG Genome Sequencing Laboratories (lGSLs) is already reiterated in the earlier communications.
"The contacts of these international travellers should also be closely tracked and tested as per the guidelines. It should also be ensured that the samples of such international travellers testing positive for Covid-I9 should be sent to designated IGSLs for Genome sequencing and these samples should be sequenced on priority at IGSLS," the order said, asking district administrators to adhere to "Test-Track Treat-Vaccinate' principle.