This article has been medically reviewed and fact-checked by Dr Nikita Toshi.
Around the world, the vaccination rate is thankfully ticking up with over 55% of the population inoculated as we head into the end of 2021. In India, the same figure stands at 32% with more than 57% of the country receiving at least 1 dose. Recently, the WHO designated a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a Variant of Concern, giving it the name ‘Omicron’.
Since the Delta variant, we have all been on the lookout for what will come next and it seems our questions have been answered. What kind of threat does Omicron pose? Will we see increased lockdowns in India or around the world like when Delta first came to light? Let’s discuss what we know so far.
What Is The Omicron Variant?
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, like all viruses and bacteria, constantly evolves and mutates. Mutations are common and most mutations typically do not cause any drastic changes in how the virus behaves or interacts with humans.
Once in a while, however, a mutation or change in the virus can alter its properties significantly. For example, it could impact the rate of transmissibility and change how effective the virus is at invading the immune system. This could make the virus better at infecting us. Now, since viruses are constantly changing, it would be impossible and ineffective to track every variation that occurs. That’s why the WHO uses a methodical approach, identifying Variants that need to be tracked and observed.
Variants of Concern is one category that identifies variants that can spread more easily, can cause serious illness or those that do not get treated or diagnosed easily by the existing measures as easily as existing variants. Omicron is the latest variant to receive the Variant of Concern title and was first detected in South Africa, with at least 30 countries having its cases by December 2021. The first cases of Omicron detected in India were discovered in Karnataka.
Why Is It Called Omicron?
The World Health Organisation created the naming convention for variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, both to simplify matters and help reduce stigma. The Variants of Interest and Concern are named simply after letters in the Greek alphabet.
Technically, the variants that we watch over all have long-winded scientific names. The scientific name for the Delta variant is B.1.617.2, while for Omicron it is B.1.1.529. These are long, hard to grasp titles. To make things easy for the media and general population to understand things, the WHO uses this Greek naming scheme.
Another reason is to help avoid blame games and finger-pointing on a global scale. Often when a new variant is discovered, the country where it is first detected often gets an unfair association with the outbreak of that variant. For example, the Delta variant has long been addressed as the ‘Indian variant’.
The previous variants of the virus were designated Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on. Although following the sequence, the latest variant was expected to be named Nu. But Nu and Xi letters in Greek were skipped and Omicron was chosen as the name for this new variant.
Omicron Vs Other Variants
- Omicron has more mutations as compared to previous variants. However, mutations do bring change in the nature of the virus – can make it stronger or weaker
- Since we have been getting better at detecting variants that could pose a threat, Omicron was discovered relatively early on a global scale. This early detection, however, means that we still have a lot more research to do. Right now there just isn’t much information available. Scientists and epidemiologists are working together tirelessly to find out what they can.
- As per the initial reports, when we speak of Omicron vs other variants, the WHO states that the Omicron variant may have a higher risk of reinfecting people who already had COVID-19 when compared with other variants. Again, this is only preliminary information.
Omicron vs Delta Variant
- The rate of transmission for Omicron is said to be 3 times higher than the Delta variant.
- Omicron can cause mild, moderate as well as severe infection and even death. Majority of cases reported have mild or moderate symptoms. If we compare Omicron vs Delta variant, latter presented with more serious symptoms.
- Symptoms of Omicron are not very different from previous variants. More frequent symptoms like scratchy throat, bodyache, fatigue, dry cough,night sweats have been reported.
- It is unknown whether transmission rates are higher with Omicron vs Delta or other variants. Also, we will only know in the coming weeks if Omicron causes more severe symptoms during infection compared to the current dominant strains.
- We do know that till now most RT-PCR tests are still able to detect the Omicron variant. However, unlike previous variants, one gene of Omicron is not detected in this test (out of three targeted genes). Since the test still detects the virus, WHO suggests that this can be used to detect Omicron quickly. This method has already been used to track the spread of Omicron in the early stages. The variant type can be confirmed only after genome sequencing.
- Lastly, the WHO also confirms that vaccination remains our strongest tool in fighting off the disease as well as preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19. The organization is working to understand the effect this variant may have on vaccines, however, vaccination continues to be one of the leading forces in limiting the severity of symptoms and death.
Omicron Vs Vaccines
The WHO has emphasised time and again that vaccination remains our strongest tool in fighting off the disease as well as preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19. The organisation is working to understand the effectiveness of vaccines against this variant, however, vaccination continues to be one of the leading forces in limiting the severity of symptoms and death.
Also Read: Is Covaxin Effective Against Omicron?
There is not much we can know until the initial studies are complete and more data is collected. For new information always use trusted sources such as the WHO or government websites. Do not trust unverified information such as that found through messaging forwards and social media posts. We have no need to panic but every need to keep following the standard COVID-19 protocols. Wearing a mask, keeping physical distance, following respiratory etiquettes and maintaining proper hand hygiene should continue. And as the WHO has said, we need to continue with our vaccination efforts. Maybe we have all begun to relax a bit and that’s understandable. But this new variant comes as a reminder to stay vigilant and stay safe.
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.