The new Omicron coronavirus variant – identified first in South Africa, but also detected in Europe and Asia – is raising concern worldwide given the number of mutations, which might help it spread or even evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination.
Omicron is ‘spreading like wildfire’ but there’s no reason to panic said Dr. Jeremy Kamil, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Louisiana State University said on Friday (December 3).
News of the variant prompted countries to announce new travel restrictions on Friday and sent drugmakers scrambling to see if their COVID-19 vaccines remain protective.
Travel restrictions create a disincentive for countries to share data said Kamil.
“We’re rewarding them with travel bans. I mean, is that really the way that you’re going to get data quickly next time if a country like Haiti or the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica finds a new variant. Maybe there would be political pressure not to release that data because they’re worried about the effects of on tourism or their economies. We need to be thinking about incentives and putting the right ones in place,” Kamil said.
The World Health Organization on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant, or Omicron, as a SARS-CoV-2 “variant of concern,” saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of coronavirus.
The Delta variant remains dominant worldwide, and it is not yet clear whether Omicron will be able to displace Delta, according to Kamil.
Two distinct difference between Delta and Omicron are: Omicron’s early warning and its high level of transmissibility.
But the new variant has over 30 mutations in the part of the virus that current vaccines target. It is also suspected of driving a spike in new infections in South Africa..
Experimental antiviral pills – such as Pfizer Inc’s Paxlovid and Merck & Co Inc’s molnupiravir – target parts of the virus that are not changed in Omicron, and these drugs could become even more important if vaccine-induced and natural immunity are threatened.
Scientists say it could be several more weeks before they can define the type of disease caused by the variant, determine how contagious it is and identify how far it has already spread.
Some note that other variants of concern, including Beta, which was also first detected in South Africa, were ultimately replaced by Delta. But the biggest question remains whether protection from COVID-19 vaccines – nearly 8 billion doses have been administered globally – will hold up. And, will people previously infected with the coronavirus be immune from infection with Omicron?
COVID-19 vaccine makers have contingency plans to deal with the Omicron variant that include a combination vaccine against the original version and the variant as well as a variant-specific booster dose, a top U.S. health official said on Friday.
The U.S. government is working with Moderna, Pfizer, and J&J on multiple contingency plans, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told reporters at a White House briefing.
“One is to rev up the production of the vaccines that they already have. The next is to make, for example, a bivalent, where you have the vaccine against both the ancestral strain and the new variant, and the other is to make a variant-specific boost,” said Fauci.
Data from a National Institutes of Health study strongly suggest that existing boosters provide cross protection against a number of variants, including Omicron, Fauci said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with local authorities to investigate suspect cases of the Omicron variant in states other than those where cases have already been reported, Director Rochelle Walensky said at the briefing.
There have been cases of Omicron detected in about 40 countries, she said, but the Delta variant remains the dominant strain in the United States.
(Production: Deborah Gembara)