There is no end to a virus, literally. Today it’s the omicron variant and tomorrow it is probably another highly mutated variant. There is always a new curveball disrupting the progress. Despite the hopeless situation, many people have been suggesting that the omicron variant may actually be where the pandemic finally ends.
Is this just the murmur on twitter or a fact backed by science?
Let’s break it down.
What is the Omicron Variant?
On november 26th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the omicron variant as a variant of concern. With the announcement and a simultaneous alarming echo of it, we got instant flashbacks of going back into lockdown, shutting down borders and closing all possibilities of travelling with freedom.
Emergence of a new mutation is the last thing any of us wanted to hear. Especially after the painful lockdown that lasted more than a year.
So what do we know about this contagious new variant?
As far as virologists are concerned, a variant so strong that it evades almost all forms of immunity from vaccines to natural immunity will surface. And the omicron variant seems to fit the prediction bill of almost every scientist on earth (Including the wise predictions of Bill Gates).
Between 15th and 25 of the last month, South Africa saw a huge surge in their covid 19 cases, from 400 cases a day to almost more than 2000. This jump was not just caused by a mere coincidence or any other factor but the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant, known as B.1.1.529, otherwise in common terms, Omicron.
Omicron Variant is seen to have a large number of mutations, however it is not innately considered more dangerous than the rest of the variants. However, like Delta, it has the capability to spread much faster. (even faster than Delta).
The rate of transmission is so much higher than expected, and the tenacity of the variant increased as it started causing reinfections. Unlike the Delta variant, Omicron is not limited or restricted by preventative measures such as hugh efficacy vaccine and antibodies from previous covid 19 infections. Omicron has a strong potential of infecting you, even if you are double vaccinated.
From the outbreaks we have seen in both South Africa and the rest of the world, patterns suggest that the Omicron variant causes a lot higher cases, even if it is not as severe. However, a low severity does not correlate to a lower death rate with Covid-19. This mild yet faster Covid-19 variant is capable of being just as lethal due to its transmissbleness.
A higher group of people who are vulnerable, and have lower immunity are less likely to be able to fight off the transmissbleness as both the vaccines and antibodies show low protection.
As of now the omicron variant is present in 57 countries, including Malaysia. Many countries have imposed stricter movement, lockdowns and increased quarantine periods. They have also imposed a ban on travel from several countries, especially the region of South Africa.
Omicron, Not From South Africa
Omicron is currently generating buzz in the media as another variant from the African region. However the truth is slightly different.
There is no conclusive evidence that suggests South Africa as the point of origin. The United Nations regional experts confirmed that the origin of the omicron variant is still unknown. They have heavily criticized the decision many countries have taken to ban travellers from South African regions.
South Africa simply has been the first to identify the variant. The country was able to discover the variant amidst the increasing number of cases because of their excellent genomic surveillance. A point that has not been credited enough in the media.
Circulation of the variant may possibly be hypothesized back to October, a much earlier date than it’s identification. This hypothesis is in line with the number of rising cases in countries that are currently battling the Omicron variant.
South Africa is also seeing a larger surge of imported Omicron variant cases than local transmission. Molecular evolution of the Omicron variant could have happened in any country across the world. It is harder to sequence it down in a world where international travel is the norm.
Countries that banned South African regions in relation to Omicron variant have also detected a significant number of Omicron cases that have zero relation to the region in question. Infected individuals have no prior history of travel to South Africa. Nor do they have any contact with people who travelled.
Omicron In Malaysia
Not long after the confirmation of another lethal variant, Malaysia uncovered it’s first case. From South Africa, it landed in Malaysia on November 19th.
The variant was detected in a 19 year old South African student who arrived from Singapore. While quarantined, she reached a full recovery with no complications and severe symptoms.
The case detected in Malaysia was reported way before South Africa reported their first detected case to the World Health Organization. It was after the confirmation of its existence, the authorities did genomic testing on all positive cases to discern if the variant was already present in Malaysia.
Minister Kairy Jamaluddin assures us that the individual was in compliance with quarantine guidelines. The case has been investigated with contact tracing and was declared fully under control.
A total of 298 new cases with variants of concern was detected between November 19th and December 8th. Out of the 298 new cases only one variant of concern has been identified as Omicron. We are yet to see any further detection of the variant in the country. But there is a high possibility that it already exists as a result of people who entered before November 24th.
Omicron Versus Delta
It is anticipated that like Delta, Omicron is going to be the major cause of infections in the country. With higher and faster transimility, there is no doubt that it will be strenuous to contain. However, the silver lining suggests faster recovery in the future with low contagiousness of the variant.
Delta came into the country with no warnings of it’s severity and contagiousness. But with Omicron, agencies are prepared and experienced.
Malaysia is already predicting the surge of with Omicron cases in the community. The president of Malaysian Medical Association, Dr Koh Kar Chai, said Omicron Variant will dominate most of the cases across the world. The same suit is likely to follow in Malaysia as well.
He has also noted Malaysia’s high overall defence against covid 19 infections with high vaccination rate and natural immunity. However, concerns are doubling back up as new data has suggested that Omicron variant poses a risk to vaccine induced immunity, including those with high effectiveness such as Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
Omicron Variant And The Impact On Vaccinations
Speaking of vaccinations, there is a positive outlook for those who are already vaccinated. Despite the news of waning antibodies and reduction of it in the face of Omicron, people who are vaccinated are more likely to be protected from the severity of the disease than those who are not vaccinated.
Even though Omicron can infect those vaccinated and reinfect those with natural immunity, vaccinations and antibodies provide substantial protection against its severity and spread.
On the other hand, Omicron still has disheartening news for those both vaccinated and unvaccinated. There has been an identifiable drop in neutralization of the Omicron variant with vaccine generated antibodies. The evolution and mutations acquired by the Omicron variant makes it harder for the currently generated antibodies to fight its impact. The covid 19 vaccine antibodies are failing to recognize the mutated variant as part of a new version or form of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Individuals who received two full doses of the Pfizer and other current covid 19 vaccines have exhibited waning protection against the variant. In simpler terms, two shots of any vaccine is simply not enough to curb the spread of the Omicron variant. However hope is instilled as preliminary data suggested the increase in neutralization against the omicron variant with a third booster shot. Finally, an instance where three is better!(a definitely not a crowd)
Fighting The Omicron Variant
Vaccine makers, akin to scientists, are predicting an overtake of the Omicron variant across the world by March of 2022. The world is not sitting idly by as they watch the infections rise. Specialists and vaccine makers are coordinating their efforts to release a variant specific available for the world by the beginning of next year. Currently, agencies, disease control centres and vaccine makers are doubling their efforts on rolling out booster shots for the world.
Transmissibility of variants like Omicron is also likely to increase in Malaysia and the rest of the world if our actions to curb the spread does not increase. We are not simply talking about wearing our masks and sanitizing hands. We are talking about measures like socially distancing, imposing lockdowns, minimizing contact, isolation and higher vaccination rates with third shots.
Viruses will always continue to mutate and surpass the existing immunity impact. However, the growth advantage and circulatory power of Omicron can be overtaken with some extra steps. A failure to do so will result in higher transmission which inevitably leads to increased hospitalization rate and higher mortality.
Can You Tell The Difference Between Delta And Omicron?
With both variants making space in the country, it is likely that an epidemic of both variants can cause complete chaos. Predictions line that Omicron can outcompete the Delta variant in terms of menacing transmibleness and severity in the spread.
An infectious disease specialist at the University of California San Francisco made a noteworthy difference between the symptoms of Omicron and Delta variant. The distinction can help us understand whether we have the Delta variant or the Omicron variant. Both variants of concern generate a variety of similar symptoms such as fatigue, cold and flu.
However, Delta variant cases’ severity worsens with the loss of some crucial senses such as smell, taste and experiencing shortness of breath. These symptoms seem to be significantly less visible among patients infected with Omicron. On the other hand, Omicron presents flu-like symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, fever and cold.
Both being variants of concern, it may simply be too early to label the Omicron variant as a milder one. Scientists and specialists are still observing the effects of the variant. They are also trying to understand it’s impact on vaccinations. Forecasts are being made about it’s course of progression in the world.
Predicting An End
As the game of snake and ladder continues with Covid 19, people are restless for the pandemic to end. While we have gotten used to the life of a pandemic, we are still contemplating the effects of what life will be like after a pandemic, or whether there will be an end any time soon.
People have hypothesized that the decreased disease severity of the new variant may be suggesting the end of the pandemic. However, the same people are forgetting that a lowered lethality of the viral mutation does not make it any safer for the world. Nor does it indicate the end of the pandemic.
The end we may be envisioning needs to be changed, as we try to meet the goal of containing the virus. We need to pull all efforts into ensuring an epidemic instead of a pandemic.
This path of progression is only possible with how rigid and aggressive we are with the prevention of transmission. As we enter a new phase of covid 19 infections with Omicron, it is important to hold on to our forts and work twice as hard to curb the spread.
This means working consistently on methods we know are effective against the spread of the virus. That is working from home, socially distancing, eating healthy and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, practising regular hand washing and staying masked at all times in public. All of it should also be followed up with stricter movement in the community and strategic travel regulations.
Any slowness in addressing variants such as Omicron can lead to a prolonged impact of the covid 19 across the world.
How we treat Omicron may be a game changer.
As people have hypothesized, it can even be a possible signal of an nearing end to the pandemic.
Time will only tell whether the omicron variant will follow suit the great pandemic of the 19th century. This pandemic, also known as Russian Flu was caused by the coronavirus, OC34. Just like in the Russian Flu, SARS-CoV-2 virus can eventually stop mutating to the point of low mortality. And seasonally make an appearance. (Remember, viruses do not die, they mutate). The strain will become significantly less virulent and be just another “cold”.
But is Omicron going to be the last mutation before reaching a complete plateau? Is this going to be the beginning of less virulent strains in the community? There is much uncertainty about Omicron Variant and only time and actions can tell the course of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.