By Roman Bharati
As we’ve all made the transition from virtual to a somewhat normal reality, I’m sure we’ve all felt on edge, waiting for that new wave or variant to send us all back online. Although I’m sure the vast majority of us don’t want that, it has become the reality.
With the surfacing of the relatively novel Omicron variant, that same question has popped into my head, especially as it dominates much of the media’s coverage of COVID-19, encouraging talks of a booster shot.
Ultimately a review of the information is necessary:
NO INDICATIONS OF INCREASED FATALITY
Despite rising hospitalisation rates, experts in South Africa, where the variant was initially discovered, stated that they have seen no evidence that Omicron is causing more severe sickness.
COVID-19 admissions are increasing rapidly in more than 50 percent of the country’s nine provinces, according to hospital statistics, but fatalities are not increasing as quickly, and measures such as the median duration of hospital stay are comforting.
“Preliminary data does suggest that while there is an increasing rate of hospitalization… it looks like it is purely because of the numbers rather than any severity of the variant itself, this Omicron,” said Joe Phaahla, the country’s health minister.
ICU occupancy in South African patients with established Omicron cases is just 6.3 percent, far smaller than during the last Delta wave, and fewer patients require supplementary oxygen to help with breathing.
OMICRON IS SPREADING EXTREMELY FAST
In South Africa, the epicentre of this variant’s spread, reported cases are gradually increasing.
Per the statistics from the country’s National Institute of Communicable Disease, a statewide outbreak connected to Omicron has now been infecting about 20,000 individuals every day over the last several days, with 19,018 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday.
Nonetheless, infections have yet to reach a peak of over 26,000 daily cases, as was seen with the notorious Delta variant.
Preliminary tests of household contacts in the United Kingdom, for example, where officials predict Omicron to become the prevalent strain in the next two to four weeks, indicated that Omicron had a greater risk of transmission than Delta.
While the Delta variant remains the predominant strain in Canada and across the globe, Omicron is in the process of becoming more prevalent. And there have already been early indicators of community dispersion in Canada.
THE COMMON COLD AND GENETIC MUTATIONS
The amount of changes in the disease’s spike protein, which enables it to attach to living cells and enter the body, is one of the most striking features of the Omicron variant.
However, a recent study says that at least one of Omicron’s mutations came from a piece of genetic material collected from another virus, presumably one that provokes the common cold.
According to researchers, this unique genetic code does not exist in previous forms of SARS-CoV-2, the viral disease COVID-19, but it is found in many other viruses, including those which cause the common cold, as well as in the human genetic code.
Venky Soundararajan of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics business inference speculates that Omicron is seeking to fool the immune system by making itself appear “more human.”
This could be a piece of information that provides insight into the future of COVID-19 and its variants. As we move forward, we will have to learn how to adapt quickly to the rapid mutations of the coronavirus disease.
IMMUNITY FROM THE VACCINES
The World Health Organization indicated in a statement this week that current vaccinations should still protect patients that get the Omicron variant from serious disease, but that preliminary lab testing from South Africa revealed the variant can partially bypass the Pfizer vaccine.
Pfizer presented early results on Wednesday that suggested two doses would not be sufficient to avoid an Omicron infection, but that a booster improved people’s levels of disease-fighting antibodies against the Omicron variant by 25 times.
Those findings, however, are tentative and have not yet been subjected to scientific scrutiny.
In consideration of the Omicron variant, some governments have already initiated booster shot efforts.
Anyone over the age of 18 will be able to schedule a booster injection in January, according to an announcement made by Ontario on Friday. Alberta and British Columbia, for example, have increased their booster shot programme. Officials in Canada, on the other hand, have indicated that the effectiveness of booster injections is yet unknown.
Evidently, much ambiguity still surrounds the variant, but as the weeks continue, it is probable that many of these studies will be more conclusive. From there, a more accurate consensus should be reached.
At UCC, we’ve continued to take all of our COVID-19 precautions with mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing and partial social-distancing. At this time, it is unlikely that the school will face another lockdown, but safety measures against this novel variant should still be taken seriously.
Again, as time progresses, and as we exit this pandemic, our adaptation to these variants will hopefully become more efficient and less panic-provoking.