Omicron: WHO classifies new variant of coronavirus, arising in South Africa

The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the new variant B.1.1.529 of coronavirus with the letter Omicron of the Greek alphabet. First discovered in South Africa, the covid-19 virus strain is already considered a VOC." At the moment, studies are conducted to define, more accurately, its possible impact on global health.

According to the WHO, the Omicron variant "has a large number of mutations, some of which are worrisome." The organization's researchers also suggest that the new strain may present an increased risk of reinfection when it is compared with the other VOCs — Delta (B.1.671.2) and Gamma (P.1).

WHO points to the risks of the variant coming from South Africa, Omicron (Image: Reproduction/IciakPhotos/Envato Elements)

For The Imperial Department of Infectious Diseases virologist, Tom Peacock, the new variant carries worrisome mutations in the S protein (Spike) of coronavirus - a place where vaccines aim at the immunization process. In addition, Peacock argues that the strain is highly contagious and should be monitored by health agencies.

In South Africa, the number of cases of the new variant grows in almost all provinces of the country. Only 23.5% of the South African population has a complete vaccination schedule (2 doses), which means that the potential for the number of cases to increase is high and, in general, this still favors new mutations in the covid-19 virus. Outside the African continent, Omicron has already arrived in Israel, Belgium, and Hong Kong.

In Brazil, the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) recommends the adoption of emergency measures to restrict the arrival of flights and travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. The idea is to bar Omicron's entry into Brazil.

What is a coronavirus VOC?

To be defined as a VOC, the variant must present some risk to overall public health and fall into at least one of the following questions:

  • Increased transmissibility;
  • Increased virulence or change in the clinical presentation of the disease;
  • Reduction of the effectiveness of social and public health measures adopted, such as vaccines and therapies.

It is not yet clear what issues Omicron fits into. Given the risks of the new variant, who calls for "where there is capacity and, in coordination with the international community, field investigations and laboratory evaluations be carried out to improve understanding of the potential impacts of VOC on epidemiology."

It is important to understand whether and how the immune response triggered by both vaccines and natural infection may be affected by the new variant.

Omicron variant in South Africa

Omicron was first reported in the WHO databases only on November 24, 2021. Today, South Africa faces a new wave of covid-19, marked by an abrupt increase in new infections. The scenario is preliminary associated with virus mutations.

Until then, the country of the African continent has experienced three major waves of covid-19, the latter being marked by the transmission of the Delta variant — also considered a VOC and first discovered in India. Previously, the country had difficulties in dealing with VOC Beta (B.1.351), first identified in South African territory.

Source: OMS and Our World in Data  

Lineesh Kumar

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