- Till now, in India, total Omicron cases are 23
- WHO states that it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible
- World Health Oraganization designated B.1.1.529 a ‘variant of concern’
New Delhi: On 26 November 2021, World Health Oraganization designated B.1.1.529 a ‘variant of concern’ and named it Omicron. According to WHO, Omicron has several mutations, which is not seen in any other COVID-19 variants previously and because of this it may have an impact on how it behaves, how easily it spreads and the severity of illness it causes. The Omicron variant has spread to two dozen countries. In India, the tally neared 23 mark after two more people were confirmed infected with the new variant in Maharashtra’s capital Mumbai, as per the official data of Monday (December 6).
Here is a summary of what is currently known about Omicron:
WHO states that it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (spreads more easily from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta. However, it states that the number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant and epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.
On the other hand, recently, a CCTV footage from a hotel in Hong Kong has triggered concerns. According to a report published by researchers at the University of Hong Kong in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Omicron variant has spread among two fully vaccinated travellers across the hallway of a Hong Kong quarantine hotel, highlighting why the highly mutated coronavirus strain is unnerving health authorities. As per the report, the CCTV footage showed neither person left their room nor they had any contact, yet the travellers contracted Omicron variant, leaving airborne transmission as a cause of concern. The researchers also said that most probable mode of spread of infection must be when respective doors were opened for food collection or Covid testing was being done.
Severity Of Disease Caused By Omicron
WHO says that it is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections from other variants, including Delta. It adds that preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.
WHO further adds that understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.
Highlighting the concern with this variant of COVID-19, AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria said,
The problem with B.1.1.529 is the unique mutation that has occurred. It has more than 50 mutations and 30 have occurred at the spike protein site, the crown-like protein on the surface of the virus that vaccines train our bodies to attack. So, if we will have so many mutations at that site then one is worried that will the immunity hold or will there be higher immune escape mechanism. All this will increase chances of reinfections or getting infections even after vaccination has been done and that is the cause of worry for now with this variant.
Stressing on the need to adopt COVID appropriate behaviour once again, Dr Subhash Salunkhe, National COVID Task Force, said,
The condition in South Africa has indicated that the cases have gone up indicating a high transmissibility, but the severity of the disease is low and for now that is a very positive news. However, that shouldn’t result in complacency, we all need to go back to the initial stages of COVID-19 and follow all the precautions like we were doing before. We cannot afford to be careless.
Effectiveness Of Vaccines Against Omicron
Currently, WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on the vaccines. However, it states that vaccines remain critical measure to reduce the severity of the disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta.
Dr Anita Ramesh, Apollo Speciality Hospitals said,
Vaccines will have some amount of efficacy against the Omicron variant but it will diminish. This is something we saw with Delta variant as well, across the world, all vaccines showed 10-15 per cent of decrease in efficacy. Similarly, will be the case with this new variant as well, however, having said that, one should still go for vaccination, as it will have more than 50 per cent of protection and remaining, we can cover with COVID-19 appropriate behaviour. For now, the priority should be on completion of vaccination programme and simultaneously moving ahead with the plan for booster shots.
Recommended Actions To Deal With Omicron
WHO has suggested a series of things for countries and persons in order to deal with the new variant of concern. For countries, WHO said,
WHO recommends countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing of cases; sharing genome sequences on publicly available databases, such as GISAID; reporting initial cases or clusters to WHO; performing field investigations and laboratory assessments to better understand if Omicron has different transmission or disease characteristics, or impacts effectiveness of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics or public health and social measures.
WHO also suggested that countries should continue to implement the effective public health measures to reduce COVID-19 circulation overall. It also adds,
In addition, it is vitally important that inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines should be urgently addressed to ensure that vulnerable groups everywhere, including health workers and older persons, receive their first and second doses, alongside equitable access to treatment and diagnostics.
For public, WHO has recommended the following:
– Keep a physical distance of at least 1 metre from others
– Wear a well-fitting mask
– Open windows to improve ventilation
– Avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces
– Keep hands clean
– Cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue
– Get vaccinated
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