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Omicron: The Mutant Virus

Everything you need to know about this mutation.

Key points

  • Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24.
  • Genetic sequencing of the Omicron specimen shows that this variant carries a multitude of mutations on spike protein. 
  • At this point, there is no evidence to suggest that Omicron causes different symptoms than other COVID-19 variants.
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WIll Covid be the new flu, new mutations, yearly vaccines?
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Just when we thought the COVID-19 pandemic was slowing down, a new variant appeared to demonstrate our assumptions were wrong. You have probably come across the news about the new variant of COVID-19, called Omicron. Below, you will get to learn more about the variant, spike protein mutations, and more.

When and where was the Omicron variant first reported?

On Nov. 24, the B.1.1.529 variant, i.e., Omicron, was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from southern Africa, or more precisely Botswana. Prior to that revelation, the epidemiological status in South Africa had been indicated by three distinct peaks. Delta variant was the most common variant in infected persons. In recent weeks, the number of positive cases increased. The first confirmed case of the Omicron variant was from a specimen obtained on Nov. 9, 2021.

WHO classified Omicron as a variant of concern on Nov. 26, 2021. Interestingly, Omicron is the quickest to be considered a variant of concern due to fast transmission and troubling mutations. Keep in mind that it is still not clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants. Epidemiologic studies are currently underway, and they will provide more information about this variant.

Where was Omicron detected?

The latest variant of COVID-19 was not only found in South Africa for very long. In a matter of days, it was identified in other countries, primarily in Europe.

While the news keeps changing by the hour, so far, the new variant has been detected in Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, Germany, Spain, and the U.S. Other countries are investigating suspected cases.

According to Dutch authorities, 61 out of 500 passengers on two flights from southern African countries to the Netherlands tested positive for COVID-19. The patients are quarantining in Amsterdam, and it is theorized the new variant will be found in some of those cases.

The European Union has restricted travel to and from southern African countries. The United States and South Korea have done the same. Similar restrictions were imposed by Canada, Russia, Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Oman, and Israel.

Omicron protein spike

Genetic sequencing of the Omicron specimen revealed this variant carries a multitude of mutations on spike protein. Spike protein is located on the outside of the coronavirus. That’s how the virus attaches to the cells it infects. Some of the abovementioned mutations were recognized already from other variants. These particular mutations could make the variant more dangerous. A good example is E484K mutation which affects antibodies and makes viruses less recognizable to them.

Besides E484K, Omicron also carries other mutations such as N501Y and D614G. The latter is also found in the Delta variant. This mutation works to enable the virus to attach to the cells more effectively. On the other hand, N501Y mutation also made Alpha and Gama variants more transmissible.

The actual number of mutations doesn’t necessarily indicate the variant will be more problematic than others. Scientists are primarily worried about the number of mutations that affect spike protein because that’s also what vaccines are targeting.

Current evidence shows the Omicron variant has over 30 mutations in the spike protein area. Some mutations have also been detected in variants Alpha and Delta. These mutations are associated with increased ineffectiveness and the ability to evade antibodies that block the infections.

However, it’s useful to bear in mind that Omicron has mutations on spike proteins that other variants don’t have. Of 30 mutations that were detected, 26 are unique to Omicron and weren’t detected in other variants of concern.

For the sake of comparison, the Alpha variant has four unique mutations only, the Beta variant has six unique mutations, Gamma has eight, and the Delta variant has seven unique mutations.

Are vaccines effective against Omicron?

It’s also useful to mention the Omicron variant has a spike mutation that enables genotyping tests to detect it faster than genome sequencing would do.

The significant number of mutations on spike protein could allow the Omicron variant to develop immunoescape mechanisms and bypass vaccines. In this scenario, the effectiveness of the vaccine should be evaluated. Manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines have already announced they will monitor this situation closely. For example, Pfizer has already stated they’re working on a version of their vaccine to target Omicron specifically.

What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

At this point, there is no evidence to suggest that Omicron causes different symptoms than other COVID-19 variants. The doctor who was the first to detect the Omicron variant said the symptoms were mild and could be managed at home. However, like all variants of COVID-19, Omicron could still induce severe complications, including death. We will know more about the symptoms and potential danger of Omicron during the next few weeks.

What can I do?

President Joe Biden described Omicron as a cause for concern, not a cause for panic. Remember, Omicron has just been detected. Scientists need to study the virus. What we do know now is that symptoms associated with the Omicron tend to be mild. That said, this variant has a lot of mutations on spike protein, and most of them are unique. This makes the variant more likely to bypass vaccines, but more info on this subject will be available soon.

What you can do is to continue with social distancing, wear a mask, and wash your hands frequently. Officials urge the public to get fully vaccinated, and those who are eligible are advised to get a booster shot.

Conclusion

A recently detected variant, Omicron, has spread quickly from Africa to Europe and other areas. The most alarming fact about this variant is the multitude of mutations in spike protein. They could speed up transmission and limit the effectiveness of vaccines. However, more info will be known soon. People are advised to receive the vaccines, and manufacturers have stated they will reformulate their shots to target Omicron. Don't forget that masks, hygiene, and social distancing can help you reduce the risk of COVID.

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