Omicron – what we know so far and what you need to know

Now we all know that this was not how anyone wanted to learn the Greek alphabet (if you wanted to learn it at all that is), however it seems that as long as COVID-19 continues to mutate, the more familiar with the Greek lettering system we are likely to become. The latest letter and corresponding variant to land on our radar is Omicron – one of 2021’s top mispronounced words too. To recap how we got here, the World Health Organisation, in consultation with some of the world’s leading health regulatory authorities; decided that for public consumption it makes sense to have names that are easier for the public to use and remember. That’s not to say that the names that are derived from the Greek alphabet have replaced the scientific names, however these are less palatable when it comes to reporting and recalling the names correctly. The World Health Organisation is also responsible for determining which variants are Variants of Interest (VOIs) or Variants of Concern (VOCS).

The newest variant of concern is of course Omicron, which fits the bill for this label according to the WHO’s definition as a variant that essentially has the potential to have a significant impact on global public health in the following ways; either through its transmissibility i.e. its ability to spread from one person to another through various means, or an “increase in virulence” (which is the severity of the disease or virus) and then lastly a “decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.” According to the experts, more variants were expected just given the nature of the virus and the fact that this is how viruses generally work when they “escape the immune response of their host and are transmitted to new hosts.” The variant was first detected in South Africa on the 25th of November, and confirmed by Professor Tulio de Oliveira who is the director of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform. However, as the Professor notes, and something that the international media seem to have conveniently overlooked in the majority of their reporting, is that “even if we were able to detect this variant here quickly, it doesn’t mean the variant is from South Africa.”

The detection and identification of the Omicron variant in SA caused a substantial amount of panic internationally which has led to a number of devastating international travel bans that have isolated not just South Africa, but a number of other African countries too from the rest of the world. As it transpires however the virus was present in some European countries before it was eventually detected in SA. What makes Omicron so different to previous variants is that it contains 30 mutations in the spike protein in comparison to previous variants of concern such as the Delta variant which only has 10. This is a significant mutation as the spike protein is the “key the virus uses to unlock the cells in our body and attach itself to the cells in the surface linings of the lungs, nose and throat.” The spike protein is also what we use as the basis for mRNA vaccine development. The variant seems to be notably transmissible, which scientist are speculating might be attributed to the types of mutation that this variant is characterised by. In addition, only a quarter of SA’s population is fully vaccinated which has an impact too.

While it is also a bit too early to say for certain, so far the symptoms presented by Omicron differ slightly from those of Beta and Delta – and include mild headaches, fever, body chills and aches. The best method of defence is a good offense in the form of a vaccination – “It’s important to get vaccinated so you have optimum protection against severe disease and death, and minimise the risk of transmission,” says Professor Rose Burnett of the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University’s virology department.

“The higher the proportion of vaccinated people, the less chance the virus has to spread and the fewer opportunities it has to multiply, mutate and give rise to a new variant.”