Nearly two years after the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the newly detected Omicron variant of coronavirus has triggered global alarm. The World Health Organization has declared the Omicron COVID-19 variant a “variant of concern”, and studies are currently being conducted to understand this new variant and the effectiveness of vaccines and treatment against it. With countries racing to implement travel bans and panic spreading on social media, here are your five urgent questions about this new variant, answered.
1. Is the Omicron variant more dangerous?
"The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high,” said the WHO. Preliminary findings show that this variant has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein (the key responsible for allowing the virus entry into our cells), which is greater than double the number of the delta variant. This suggests, says the WHO, that previous antibodies may no longer be effective, and it puts people who have previously had COVID-19 at a high risk of re-infection. However, as of 30 November 2021, the WHO asserts that no deaths have been linked to this variant yet.
2. Is it more transmissible than the previous variants?
The WHO has said that it is not clear if Omicron is more transmissible. In South Africa where the variant was first detected, the number of cases jumped from 273 to 1200 within a week, but studies are being conducted to see if this was because of the virus or other factors. Preliminary research suggests that it has quickly overtaken the Delta variant of COVID to become the dominant strain in Gauteng, South Africa, where 80 percent of the cases have been observed. The variant has already been detected in 15 countries worldwide, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada and Hong Kong.
Related Story: Addressing All Your Post Covid-19 Vaccination Concerns
3. Are the symptoms the same?
According to Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, the symptoms are mild but unfamiliar, and not accompanied by loss of smell. Patients infected by the Omicron variant have reported intense fatigue, mild muscle aches, a scratchy throat and a dry cough.
4. Can it be detected by the RT-PCR test?
The RT-PCR test is used to confirm if you have the COVID-19 infection, and reports from the Indian Health Ministry show that Omicron does not escape detection from this test. Also, unlike previous variants which could only be determined after an expensive and time-intensive genetic sequencing test, the WHO has declared that in some forms of RT-PCR tests, the Omicron variant can be detected. This can be a vital step in identifying the symptoms of this specific variant and containing the infection.
5. Are you safe if you are double vaccinated?
While the effectiveness of currently available vaccines against Omicron are still being studied, the WHO declared that “Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.” In South Africa, the patients that required hospitalisation were mostly unvaccinated. The Serum Institute of India has assured that if the Omicron variant spreads further, a new booster shot for vaccines available in India will be tailormade in six months’ time.