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Omicron: New COVID-19 Variant Sparks Global Concerns

Dr. Samia Khan

4 min read

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Just when the world thought that it had dealt with the life-threatening COVID-19 pandemic, the Omicron variant, a new, potentially deadly COVID-19 variant has emerged.

Nations all over the world have been put on high alert as scientists and health organizations are currently at work trying to distill what dangerous features this variant holds and what this means for the general public. Here’s what we know so far.

What is the Omicron Variant?

The Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant is the newest variant of COVID-19 that recently emerged on the scene causing widespread fear and concern throughout the world.

Omicron gets its name from the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. The World Health Organization (WHO) follows the practice of naming SARS-CoV-2 variants based on Greek alphabets to avoid confusion and make it easy for the general public to keep track of these strains.

The Omicron variant has been declared a variant of concern by WHO. According to the WHO tracking page, there are a total of 7 variants deemed as “variants of concern” or “variants of interest.”

Variants of Concern (VOCs)

Following are the currently designated variants of concern according to WHO:

  1. Alpha
  2. Beta
  3. Gamma
  4. Delta
  5. Omicron

Variants of Interest (VOIs)

Following are the currently designated variants of interest according to WHO:

  1. Lambda
  2. Mu

Since, Omicron is currently classified as a variant of concern, countries all over the world have been put on high alert as we prepare to defend against any potential harm posed by the new variant.

Where was the variant first detected?

The Omicron variant was first detected on 25th November 2021, in South Africa. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed 22 positive cases raising global concerns. Since then 2 more cases were detected in Botswana and Hong Kong.

On 26th November, another case was detected in Belgium making this the first case of Omicron in Europe. The person was allegedly a traveler from Egypt. Following this discovery, Israel also reported that it had detected its first Omicron case found in a traveler returning from Malawi.

More recently, on September 29, 2021, 6 more cases of the Omicron variant were detected in Scotland.

Is the Omicron variant more dangerous than the Delta variant?

Scientists haven’t yet reached a conclusion on how potentially dangerous the omicron variant could be however one thing that is worrying is its high number of mutations. Initial evidence also suggest that with the Omicron variant the risk of reinfection is higher than other variants of concern.

According to National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, the Omicron variant has a “record” number of mutations. This is what he had to say on Sunday 28th, November, 2021 on an appearance on Fox New Sunday:

“The newly discovered Omicron variant of the coronavirus has a “record” number of mutations that could hinder vaccine effectiveness. We do know that this is a variant that has a lot of mutations – like 50 of them, and more than 30 of those in the spike protein, which is the part off the virus that attaches to your human cells if you get infected. That is a new record in terms of the number of mutations. It does make you worry, therefore, that it’s a sufficiently different virus, that it might not respond as well to protection from the vaccines. But we don’t know that.”

https://www.businessinsider.com/omicron-variant-has-a-record-number-of-mutations-nih-director-2021-11

However, this take is based on preliminary findings therefore we must wait patiently as scientists work to understand the strain completely and figure out how it interacts with the COVID-19 vaccines and the COVID-19 antiviral pills.

Dr. Faheem Younas renowned MD on Twitter shared his take on the matter saying that he believes “omicron will not outspread delta.” Here is his tweet:

https://twitter.com/FaheemYounus/status/1465182902589829120

He also assured the general public to not be fearful of the virus being resistant to the new COVID-19 antiviral pills saying that they “will remain effective.”

What are the symptoms of Omicron?

According to Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association who has had experience with 7 patients infected with the new strain, it has “mild” symptoms that are different than the Delta variant. They include:

  • Tiredness
  • Muscle aches
  • Scratchy throat
  • Dry cough

According to Dr. Angelique Coetzee:

“Patients I’ve seen had mild symptoms and recovered. None were admitted and no oxygen was needed. The hype makes no sense to at all.”

via Twitter @talkRADIO

How countries are responding to the emergence of the Omicron variant

As a precautionary measure, several countries have announced travel restrictions banning all travel from South Africa and other African nations. These countries include:

  • UK – Banned all travel from Botwsana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe from Friday
  • Israel – Banned all travel to South Africa and added Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini to its list of “high risk” countries for travel.
  • United States – Banned travel from 8 African countries, namely, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Response from NCOC (National Command Operation Center)

NCOC, Pakistan’s primary body leading the nationwide response against COVID-19 announced a travel ban from 7 African countries:

  • South Africa
  • Hong Kon
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • Lesotho
  • Botswana

This step was taken in order to protect the Pakistani citizens against the spread of the Omicron variant. The decision was announced by NCOC on Twitter, Saturday, November, 27, 2021:

WHO guidelines for countries to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant

Following are the guidelines by WHO for countries all over the world to protect themselves against the potential spread of this variant:

  • Enhance surveillance to promote a better understanding of the spread of various SARS-CoV-2 variants
  • Submit complete genome sequences to a publically available database such as GISAID
  • Report initial cases of variant of concern (VOC) infections to WHO through the International health regulations (IHR) mechanism
  • Performing field investigations and lab assessments to better understand the effects of the VOC on COVID-19 severity, immune responses, and other characteristics.

WHO guidelines for individuals to protect themselves from the Omicron variant

Following are the guidelines given by WHO for individuals which include general SOPs in order to stay safe from the spread of the new variant:

  • Wearing masks
  • Hand hygiene
  • Social distancing
  • Improving ventilation of indoor spaces
  • Avoiding crowded spaces
  • Getting vaccinated

Conclusion

It is still too early to call how the Omicron variant will effect our wellbeing and lives in general. Scientists haven’t reached a consensus yet on whether this variant is more severe as compared to other variants of COVID-19.

However one thing that is certain is that we should all follow the proper COVID-19 SOPs, maintain a social distance and most importantly get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible to protect ourselves, our families, and fellow citizens from being affected by this new, potentially dangerous strain of the Coronavirus.

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are intended to raise awareness about common health issues and should not be viewed as sound medical advice for your specific condition. You should always consult with a licensed medical practitioner prior to following any suggestions outlined in this article or adopting any treatment protocol based on the contents of this article.

Dr. Samia Khan
Dr. Samia Khan - Author Dr. Samia Khan is a very well-regarded Family Physician and has a number of certifications under her belt, including MBBS, RMP, and BCLS Specialist as well as 35 years of experience in her field.
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