Rosie Awori (LJI)
The variant B.1.1.529 named Omicron has been identified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on November26. It was first identified in Botswana and South Africa.
This new iteration of the coronavirus has prompted concern among scientists and public health officials because of an unusually high number of mutations that have the potential to make the virus more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines.
The World Health Organization has called Omicron a “variant of concern” warned that the global risks posed by it were “very high,” despite what officials described as a multitude of uncertainties.
It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.
So far, cases have been identified in dozens of countries around the world, including Britain, Italy, Belgium, Israel, Netherlands, Canada and the United States.
According to the WHO, It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.
Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.
There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. Initial reported infections were among university students—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease—but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.
All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.
Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (ie, people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron), as compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited.
There are early signs that Omicron may cause only mild illness. But that observation was based mainly on South Africa’s cases among young people, who are less likely overall to become severely ill from Covid.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association, said that the nation’s hospitals were not overwhelmed by patients infected with the new variant, and most of those hospitalized were not fully immunized. Moreover, most patients she had seen did not lose their sense of taste and smell, and had only a slight cough.
WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.
The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, like with other variants as well. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.
Health Canada announced that as a precautionary measure, until January 31, 2022 there will be enhanced border measures for all travellers who have been in the southern Africa region – South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia, Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt – within the last 14 days before arriving in Canada.
And the government encourages Canadians to reduce or avoid travel to south African countries .
The United States also updated its border measure in response the Omicron threat.