On November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the Omicron variant of the coronovirus as a ‘variant of concern’, following the very first case being reported in South Africa. The WHO has stated that it is working with researchers globally to understand how the variant will impact the Covid-19 pandemic.
The official statement from WHO toes the line ‘less concern if contained’ on the new variant. However, questions whether the Omicron variant will evade vaccine protection or cause more serious illness still remain unanswered.
Scientists say that it would take at least three to six weeks from today to determine how fast this new variant will spread across the globe and what its intensity could be.
One of the most important questions is if the new coronavirus variant will outrun the globally dominant Delta variant.
A professor of microbiology and immunology at the Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, John Moore, in an interview by Reuters said “Relative to the Delta, how transmissible is the Omicron? That’s the major, major, major thing that we need to know”.
The scientific community will keep a close watch on cases caused by the Omicron variant reported on public databases – and whether these begin to supplant cases caused by the Delta variant. This could take three to six weeks, depending on how fast the variant moves, experts said.
Based on the location of the Omicron’s mutations in the virus’s spike protein, David Ho, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University in New York, believes Omicron will show a substantial degree of resistance to existing vaccines.
“The vaccine antibodies target three regions on the coronavirus spike, and Omicron has mutations in all three of those regions,” Ho said.
Others note that earlier variants like Beta also had mutations that rendered vaccines less effective, but vaccines still helped prevent severe disease and death. Even if neutralising antibodies induced by vaccines become less effective, other immune system components, known as T cells and B cells, will likely compensate, they said.
“Vaccination will likely keep you out of the hospital,” said John Wherry, director, Penn Institute for Immunology, Philadelphia.
The first real-world studies of vaccine effectiveness against the Omicron variant in the community are likely to take at least three to four weeks, as experts study rates of so-called “breakthrough” infections in people who are already inoculated, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.