The new omicron variant of the coronavirus has sounded alarms around the world and the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the global risk as “very high”, while researchers wonder if it causes a more severe disease and if it is more communicable.
The United States and several countries in Europe and the rest of the world have established restrictions on flights from countries in southern Africa and especially from South Africa, where the first cases of omicron were recorded.
Meanwhile, researchers are working around the clock to determine how transmissible this omicron variant is and how effective current vaccines might be, amid concerns that the variation has the potential to escape immunizers.
The worrying question: does omicron cause a more severe disease?
According to the latest update published by the WHO this Sunday, there is currently no information on the severity of the covid-19 generated by omicron compared to other variants, including delta, and it will take several weeks of investigations to find out.
There is also no information to suggest that omicron, identified as variant B.1.1.529, causes symptoms different from other variants.
There is preliminary data on an increase in covid-19 hospitalizations in South Africa, but this can be attributed to the general growth of infections in the country. Omicron is also known to have quickly become the dominant variant where it has sprung up in South Africa.
South Africa has vaccinated less than 36% of its adult population with two doses and its rate of new vaccinations has dropped in recent days, according to the country’s Health Department.
A doctor who treated some patients in South Africa told Reuters that her patients had only mild symptoms. “The most prevalent clinical complaint is severe fatigue for a day or two, then headaches and body aches,” said Angelique Coetzee, president of the South African Medical Association.
In this regard, the WHO noted that the first reports of infections in South Africa have been among young people, who generally tend to experience mild or moderate illness.
The WHO has also indicated that preliminary evidence suggests that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with omicron, compared to other variants of interest, but the information is limited.
A series of mutations in omicron
Genomic scientists in South Africa said earlier this week that the variant has an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the spike protein, the structure the virus uses to enter cells it attacks.
Those mutations could make the variant more transmissible and more resistant to vaccines.
Researchers have pointed to, for example, the E484K mutation , which can make the virus less recognizable to some antibodies, or the N501Y , which gave the alpha and gamma variants their highest transmissibility. Both are present in omicron.
The new variant is also affected, like delta, by the D614G mutation , which appears to help the virus adhere better to the cells it infects.
“The number of mutations per se does not mean that the new variant will cause any problems; although it may make it look more different to the immune system, ” Dr. Peter English, former chairman of the Committee on Medicine , said in a statement. of Public Health of the British Medical Association.