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World on red alert as Omicron looms in the unknown; Here’s everything you need to know about the worst ever strain to be ever detected

Almost as soon as the world seemed to be returning to normal, a new variant of COVID-19 has begun spreading fears and uncertainty throughout nations. The World Health Organisation on Friday declared the Omicron strain a “variant of concern.” The mutated strain of SARS-CoV-2 was initially detected in South Africa. Evidence suggests that the new strain is highly contagious and lethal, especially among the unvaccinated populations. 


Since the beginning of the second wave, the Indian-origin Delta variant has been the driving force behind infections around the globe. Due to its high lethality and transmissibility rate, however, the new Omicron variant has displaced it from being called "the deadliest strain of the virus."


Several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Botswana, Israel, Hong Kong, and Australia, have reported infections attributed to the deadly strain. Travel restrictions have been imposed in my countries to contain the spread and reduce infection rates. To contain the spread of infection, many countries have imposed travel restrictions.


Origin


The Omicron variant was originally classified as the B.1.1.529 strain of the SARS-CoV-2. Health officials in South Africa witnessed a small cluster of outbreaks in the country’s most populous province of Gauteng. However, after examining the blood reports of those infected, they realized that they were dealing with a very silent yet severe health crisis.


Cases in South Africa have increased fourfold. Reports estimate the nation to tally upwards of 10,000 daily cases by the end of the week. Only 35% of the South African population are vaccinated. Such a huge number of unvaccinated populations has the fostered the growth of the virus exponentially as there exists no line of defence. Additionally, the increase in the number of mutations and the virus' ability to evade the immune response system suggest the variant originated in an HIV-infected individual.


Attributes


Omicron has capabilities of producing over thirty mutations, thus having twice as many mutations as the Delta variant. Some of these have deadly characteristics. The virus particle is believed to have thirty mutations on the spike protein and ten on the receptor binding domain. The spike protein is what the virus uses to attach itself to human cells to infect them. The WHO said about hundred genome sequences of the variant have so far been discovered.


Why is the variant so worrisome?


The most worrying attribute of the variant is the rapid transmission rates it has displayed, which in such a short period has swept across South Africa and has also displaced the Delta variant as the leading source of the infections. On the other hand, infection rates in the country soared from 200 cases on 16 November 2021 to over 2500 by 28 November.


Renowned microbiologist Dr. Gagandeep Kang has expressed her concerns over these attributes. She fears the behaviour of the virus more than the transmissibility rate. In a society where most of its members are vaccinated, the variant generates characteristics that will enable a faster immune escape, as Israel has reported cases of reinfection in individuals who have received both doses of vaccination and a booster dose.


Not many countries have the infrastructure nor the resources required to quickly identify the deadly strain. With the current method of testing, it may take days for a result and by then would be too late to contain its spread. The symptoms which develop upon infection remain unknown.


Lastly, there are also no such evidences as to whether Omicron would cause a much more severe disease upon infection. Preliminary reports from South Africa suggest that most cases require hospitalisation however, these records of admission may be from the emergency reports which would have identified COVID positive patients.


It is scientifically impossible to conduct a quick and accurate analysis of the variant. Researchers will have to analyse the strain for weeks to determine whether its severity is higher or lower than perceived.


Dr. Angelique Coetzee’s findings


Dr. Angelique Coetzee was the first to identify the presence of a new variant in the system. Earlier this month, she received many patients with symptoms that are usually not related with COVID-19. Many including children turned up with unusual symptoms such as irregular pulse rate, complete exhaustion, etc. About half of her patients were unvaccinated.


Further investigation and test reports confirmed Angelique's suspicions that a new variant is in the environment, one that seems completely different from its predecessors. She immediately alerted the concerned authorities who acted very swiftly to contain the spread.


Angelique claimed that most patients did not require hospitalization. All most all patients, including the unvaccinated ones, suffered only from mild symptoms such as muscle aches, exhaustion, itchy throat and fever.


Can Omicron evade the immunity provided by vaccines?


Unfortunately, not much data is available to conclude whether or not our vaccines have the capability to fight such a heavily mutated variant. Scientists are conducting trials using samples collected from different locations to determine how effective vaccinations are against the new strain. 


Cases of reinfection have been reported in individuals who have received the Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines. The heavily mutated variant may reduce the efficacy of vaccines by nearly 40%.


However, top US infectious disease official and epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Faucci believes the role of vaccinations may come crucial in preventing serious illness. Experts believe that mRNA vaccines such as the Pfizer and Moderna, are capable of quickly adapting against most variants.


Pharmaceutical companies who are involved in vaccine development have scrambled to make tweaks and booster doses that will help in combating Omicron. Pfizer and BioNTech have promised to deliver a vaccine within 100 days whereas Johnson & Johsnon are working on their trials and studies to create an Omicron specific vaccine. Novavax claimed to be working on launching a reworked dose of vaccination and the makers of Sputnik V are confident that their vaccine can adapt to combat the deadly strain of virus.


Global response to Omicron 


The South African government was quick to respond and took all precautionary measures to contain the spread of the infection within the province. Unfortunately, it was too late. In a bid to contain the spread globally, officials alerted the WHO and the international media to take the required actions immediately.


The WHO warned that several parts of the world may face severe consequences if the virus is not contained. Within a span of few hours travel restrictions were imposed in almost all countries across the world. International passengers are thoroughly screened and those who fly in from countries where the variant has been detected are mandatorily placed under institutional quarantine for a period of 7 or 10 days. 


Countries such as Australia and the UK have banned the entry of foreign nationals from those places where the variant’s presence has been detected. On thee other, countries such as Morocco, Israel and Japan have adopted a harsher method to contain the virus by banning all international arrivals, even for their own citizens. 


Nevertheless, almost all countries have banned the entry of flyers from South Africa, Botswana and other neighbouring nations in that region. The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa feels the decision to cut off his nation from the rest of the world to be “completely unjustified.” He calls it to be an unfairly discrimination against the countries in the Southern African region and believes the travel prohibitions will fail to contain the virus.


US President, Joe Biden, believes confidently that Washington is fully prepared to take on another wave of COVID-19. The US will also join the rest of the world in imposing travel restrictions and have banned entry of all foreign nationals who have visited the countries in the South African region recently. There has been a significant rise in cases in major cities such as New York and the new variant may cast a pall over the upcoming holiday season.


The emergence of the new variant has created a ripple effect in the global markets. Shares plunged as the fears of the Omicron spreading grasped over international economies. It’s safe to say that the first and second wave of COVID-19 have definitely taught people a lesson that will forever remain etched in their minds. 


India’s response to Omicron


Omicron’s entry certainly poses a threat to India’s prolonged battle with COVID-19. The continued decline in cases and positivity rate gave many hopes that the old normal shall return to soon. However, with the emergence of the new variant, all 28 states and 8 union territories.


States have imposed travel restrictions from flyers arriving from those states which have been prone to COVID outbreaks in the past such as Maharashtra and Kerala. Old restrictions such as negative RT-PCR test reports along with vaccination certificates are mandatorily required if an individual seeks to travel within the country. Stringent screening is firmly in place at all sources of virus entry such as airports, railway stations, bus stands and check posts.


As of now, there have been reported cases of the Omicron variant in India. However, Bangalore reported two positive cases of South African nationals. Upon further study, one of the reports confirmed positive for the Delta variant whereas the other seems to be different in nature. This has caused a scare amongst the citizens of Bangalore.


Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal has appealed to Prime Minster Narendra Modi to stop the entry of all international flights. He also warned the PM of the severe consequences that can be caused if the decision to ban international travellers are delayed. Arvind Kejriwal also spoke confidently about the government’s preparedness to fight a third wave.


The battle against COVID-19 seems to be never ending. Anthony Faucci expects the emergence of more variants which will arise in the coming years that may be more or less severe as Omicron.


 


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