Omicron: what is it and why are experts concerned?

Nov 28, 2021
Spreading Speed Curve for COVID-19 (New Strain Called Omicron). Coronavirus. Dramatically Fast Spreading. Source: Getty

Just when you thought it might be safe to dip your toe back into the waters of international travel, along comes another coronavirus variant, potentially adding to the fourth wave of this pandemic and casting its cloud in particular over the northern hemisphere.

Continuing with the Greek letter theme, this new variant has now been named Omicron and already some concerning features have emerged. The Omicron variant appears to have arisen from South Africa, possibly from an immunocompromised person who is suffering untreated HIV/AIDS.

Worryingly, it’s been discovered that this new South African strain B.1.1.529 contains 32 mutations in the spike protein which is the area of the coronavirus that enters cells via the ACE-2 receptors in the lungs. It also has two mutations that have been linked to an increased risk for infection and transmission.

It has become the predominant variant in South Africa with a few hundred cases, on a daily basis. Of concern, it has also spread to Israel, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong and Botswana. Dutch authorities have since quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who were Covid-19-positive to determine whether they carry the Omicron strain.

Omicron has also touched down in Australia. Two cases of the strain were determined in travellers arriving from South Africa. Governments around the world have reacted to shut down travel from affected areas but, with most things corona, it will probably find its way to invade as many countries as possible.

Recent figures have suggested that only 55% of the world’s population is fully vaccinated, with only 40% in South Africa and tragically, we are still seeing a number of ill-informed individuals and groups continuing to protest against mandatory vaccination.

Regardless of the anti-vaxxers’ belief in junk science, the reality is that unless we can achieve well over 90% full vaccination around the world, which I suspect is a pipe dream, we will almost certainly continue to see this virus mutate to the point where it may become vaccine-resistant.

In the meantime, we will have to wait and see over the next few weeks whether this new Omicron variant matches or even exceeds the devastation we’ve seen with the Delta variant. The reality is that no one can predict what is going to happen over the next 12 months, or beyond for that matter, with this coronavirus and just when we thought were starting to see the Delta variant under control in Australia, it appears that this new threat may cause further outbreaks.

This is one time when I sincerely hope that I’m getting this absolutely wrong and that the Omicron strain fizzles out quickly.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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