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Omicron – The New Variant Of COVID-19: Risks And Safety Precautions

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This article has been medically reviewed and fact-checked by Dr Nikita Toshi

The SARS-CoV-2 COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill when it first spread across the globe at the beginning of 2020. Amidst lockdowns and strict travel restrictions, the virus kept on mutating as it spread among more people. When finally it seemed like the worst was behind us (thanks to an extensive vaccination scheme), we got the news that there’s a new strain doing the rounds! Omicron strain is the latest mutation, first identified by scientists in South Africa.

Read on to know more about the new strain of COVID-19 and how you can protect yourself from it. 

All about the Omicron strain 

Scientists in South Africa reported the development of a new strain of the COVID-19 virus, called the B.1.1.529 on November 24th, 2021. The World Health Organisation (WHO) named it Omicron, following the tradition of using Greek nomenclature to denote the strains of the virus. The strains before the Omicron were named alpha, beta, gamma, Delta variant and so on. The new variant (Omicron) has been named while skipping the two letters in the Greek alphabet ‘Nu’ and ‘Xi’. [1]

When we talk about the origin story of the variant, experts from South Africa notified on 2nd December 2021 that the origin of Omicron was unknown. On the other hand, as per theories released by Livescience, the Omicron variant was believed to have possibly evolved in rodents. Whichever statement might be true, it can be said that not much is known about the Omicron variant and further studies are underway. But with the spread of the Omicron variant, researchers also shared thoughts of the COVID-19 virus becoming endemic. 

The health implications of the Omicron strain are still being tested by scientists around the world, however, the number of positive COVID-19 tests in South Africa indicate that this new strain is potentially fast-spreading because the Omicron strain has a high number of mutations in the ‘spike protein’ associated with COVID-19. [2]

It is important to maintain safety protocols as the virus is already seeing a spread in India and other nations like Israel, the United Kingdom, the US, Belgium, Botswana, Canada and Hong Kong. The WHO considers this as a Variant of Concern (VOC) for now, and many countries gearing up to issue travel bans as a response to stop its spread. 

How does Omicron affect us?

By now, you might be feeling quite gloomy after knowing that cases of Omicron have been confirmed in India. You might also be wondering how this new strain affects you and the health implications it has. There are a lot of assumptions like getting affected by the Omicron strain is more likely for people who have already been affected by COVID-19 before, Currently, only mild infections have been noticed among individuals affected by this strain and so on. 

Whether the Omicron strain can trigger severe symptoms and effects will be confirmed only after further testing. There are concerns about the Omicron strain having the ability to evade the immune system and cause breakthrough vaccine infections (infection after getting vaccinated). For now, reinfection of individuals remains the biggest risk posed by this virus (till further studies suggest otherwise). [3]

It’s too early to state anything specific about the characteristics or severity of the new variant. It is important to stay calm, not panic and follow all safety measures sincerely.

How is Omicron different from the Delta variant?

The delta variant of COVID-19 was discovered first in India and was responsible for the 2nd wave of the pandemic in the country. According to current studies, the Omicron variant has many more mutations in its spike protein than the delta variant. It is assumed that this variant can be is more transmissible than the delta variant, which can be a cause for concern.

The delta variant of the virus is responsible for heavy infections and mortality. The delta variant of the virus is a lethal variant and current reports are yet to confirm the severity of illness caused by the Omicron variant. The reinfection rate and the transmissibility rate is predicted to be much higher in the Omicron variant. But, more studies and data are needed for a better understanding of this variant.

Also Read: Omicron vs Other Variants

Symptoms of the Omicron variant

There have been no reports on any unusual symptoms noticed in people affected by the omicron variant of COVID-19 so far. Thus, the current scenario suggests that symptoms of the Omicron variant can be the same as what was being noticed in the earlier strains of the virus. Some of the most common symptoms of COVID-19 include – fever, weakness, loss of smell, shortness of breath, chest pain and loss of taste, sore throat, cough, stomach ache, diarrhoea. We are yet to receive confirmatory data on the severity and symptoms of the new COVID variant- Omicron. [4]

Which tests can detect the Omicron strain?

The SARS-CoV-2 RT- PCR diagnostic test can detect the new strain of the virus. Studies are going on to understand the effectiveness of other tests in the detection of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. Samples of suspected people reported positive by RT-PCR test are sent for genome sequencing for confirmation of the Variant type.

What Are the Precautions for Omicron Virus

The best way to stay safe currently is by following all WHO and Government-mandated safety measures for Omicron –

  1. Get vaccinated if you haven’t 
  2. Maintain physical distancing, 
  3. Limit your travel outside as much as possible and avoid crowding at all costs.
  4. Wear a mask when stepping out or meeting any outsider
  5. Follow hand hygiene and respiratory etiquettes
  6. Do not ignore any signs of illness (fever, weakness, sore throat) and consult your doctor immediately

Surveillance for the new strain has been increased in all countries including India to monitor the spread of the new variant. Many nations have started imposing travel restrictions as precautions for Omicron and you shouldn’t travel to nations where the Omicron strain is spreading rapidly. Cancel travel plans (if not urgent) as safety is of vital importance. Read about the travel guidelines if you or your dear ones are planning to travel and make sure it is followed well to avoid any trouble while traveling.[5]

Conclusion 

The Omicron variant is spreading rapidly but on a positive note, assumptions are deeming the virus to be less deadly than the delta variant. People who have been affected by COVID-19 or those with other comorbidities need to stay extra cautious as the rate of reinfection is thought to be high in this new variant. If you follow all safety protocols and maintain good hygiene, you can lower the risk of infection from the new variant. Be responsible to limit the spread of the virus and encourage the maintenance of safety protocols among your peers.

Also Read: Do Existing Vaccines Work Against Omicron?

FAQs

Q1. Can Omicron kill you?
Ans: Scientists are yet to confirm how deadly the Omicron variant might turn out to be. One must follow all safety measures to minimise the risk of infection.

Q2. Can the Omicron virus evade vaccines?
Ans: As per reports, it is too early to establish a statement on the efficacy of vaccines against the new Omicron virus. At the same time, there is no evidence to suggest the ineffectiveness of vaccines against the new COVID variant. Vaccines are always going to help humans in this battle against the virus. 

Q3. How was the Omicron virus formed?
Ans: It is the prime nature of a virus to evolve as it spreads and replicates from host to host. Mutations can bring about changes like the virus- making it weak at times and strong as well. With regards to the formation of this virus, there are three assumptions; one, the virus first infected an animal and then spread amongst humans. Two, around mid-2020, the strain had already started doing the rounds and by the end of 2021, it had undergone a significant degree of mutations and was in a very transmissible stage. Three, another assumption is that the virus probably evolved in an immunocompromised person and then started spreading to others. Needless to say that none of these claims is backed by solid proof and remain debatable.

Q4. Where was the Omicron variant discovered?
Ans: As per news reports, the origin country of the Omicron virus in South Africa. 

Q5. When was the Omicron virus first detected?
Ans: The Omicron virus was first detected in South Africa in November 2021. 

Q6. Has the Omicron virus arrived in India?
Ans: Few cases of Omicron have been detected in India. 

Q7. Will schools be shut down due to the Omicron virus?
Ans: It is being estimated that physical attendance in schools might see a 14% drop owing to the circulation of news about the Omicron virus. 

Q8. Will there be another lockdown due to the Omicron virus?
Ans: Following the Omicron Virus positive test results in India, the Health Ministry has officially announced that there will not be any need for a lockdown right away. However, the public is strongly advised to follow all Covid appropriate guidelines and get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

Q9. Will the Omicron virus end the Pandemic?
Ans: There is no evidence to confirm that the Omicron virus will end the pandemic. 

Q10. Will the Omicron virus affect travel?
Ans: Following reports of the Omicron virus, the Union Health Ministry has laid specific travel guidelines for international passengers. Even if you are planning domestic travel, check the travel guidelines of that particular area and follow COVID appropriate behaviour to ensure your safety and the safety of others. 

Q11. Is the Omicron Virus fast-spreading?
Ans: Based on the mutations present in the new COVID variant, there are predictions that the Omicron virus may spread at a faster rate than the previous variants. But we need to wait for some more time to understand the exact nature of this virus.

Also Read: Omicron Variant: Latest Updates and News

Disclaimer: The information included at this site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment by a healthcare professional. Because of unique individual needs, the reader should consult their physician to determine the appropriateness of the information for the reader’s situation.

References

  1. https://www.who.int/en/activities/tracking-SARS-CoV-2-variants/
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03552-w
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/vaccine-induced-immunity.html
  4. https://www.who.int/news/item/26-11-2021-classification-of-omicron-(b.1.1.529)-sars-cov-2-variant-of-concern
  5. https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/GuidelinesforInternationalarrival28112021.pdf

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