As Omicron spreads, research teams try to figure out just how bad it is; What we know so far


With more than 20 countries confirming the presence of Omicron, the new variant of COVID-19, researchers and virologists are racing to understand the threat it poses to the world. Even before the World Health Organization (WHO) named the new lineage, a number of research teams had already duplicated work from labs in South Africa, where it was first identified. times, and mapped out the genetic changes that made Omicron a bad actor.

Although other variants also have mutations, it will take scientists weeks to determine if Omicron is different from previous strains and if it has additional powers in terms of transmissibility, severity or potential to evade vaccines.

“There’s so little understanding of what’s going on, and that’s true even among scientists,” Senjuti Saha, a molecular microbiologist and director of the Child Health Research Foundation in Bangladesh, told Nature.

What are the researchers doing?

Researchers sequence genomes by testing patient samples. Sequencing will reveal if Omicron is causing the infections. Also, they will see if the infections are severe and if fully vaccinated people also get the infection. Omicron has over 30 mutations, some of which have been seen in other variants.

However, researchers have very little insight into other unknown mutations. They fear that the pack has bad adaptations. These tests in real conditions by the researchers can take months.

“AstraZeneca is also already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified, namely Botswana and Eswatini, which will allow us to collect real data on Vaxzevria against this new virus variant,” CNN quoted a spokesperson. from the vaccine manufacturer as saying.

How fast does Omicron spread?

Omicron has been spreading rapidly since it was first reported in South Africa. South Africa itself had reported 8,561 cases as of December 1 compared to 3,402 reported on November 26. Researchers observe how the Omicron spreads to other places.

Vaccination and previous infection rate will determine how quickly the variant spreads elsewhere, viral evolution expert Aris Katzourakis of the University of Oxford, UK, told Nature. “If you put it in the mix of a highly vaccinated population that has dropped other control measures, it might have the edge there,” Katzourakis said.

Does it cause more serious disease?

Although South African doctors initially thought the symptoms of the Omicron variant were milder, hospital beds began to fill up faster. So far, scientists cannot confirm whether Omicron causes worse symptoms than previous variants.

“It is too early to comment on the severity of the disease. So far, we really can’t say anything,” Christian Althaus, an epidemiologist at the University of Bern, told MIT Technology Review.

Will vaccines still work?

The rapid increase in the number of infections hints at Omicron’s power to overcome immunity. On December 2, researchers at South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg said reinfections in the country had increased with the spread of Omicron.

To find out if current vaccines work against the new variant, researchers are trying to isolate Omicron from the bodies of infected people and grow it in cells in the lab for later exposure in the blood plasma of vaccinated people.

This will help them determine if the person’s antibodies are blocking the virus. Meanwhile, other labs are using Omicron’s genetic information to create ‘pseudoviruses’ with the new variant’s spike gene, which will be introduced into vaccinated people.

A team from the University of Texas is working with Pfizer-BioNtech to determine if their vaccine is resistant to Omicron.

“Depending on the degree of blockage, you can tell it still works, or not as well,” Volker Thiel, a virologist at the University of Bern, told MIT Technology Review.

Even if Omicron bypasses neutralizing antibodies, this does not indicate that vaccination will not offer any protection against the variant. It will protect people against severe forms of COVID-19, Miles Davenport, an immunologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told Nature.

Meanwhile, even as wealthy countries like the UK ramp up the rollout of booster doses of the vaccine, it is unclear whether they are effective against the new variant.


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