The World Health Organization labeled Omicron – the latest COVID-19 variant – as a variant of concern because of its seemingly rapid spread in South Africa and its several troubling mutations. Furthermore, the emergence of Omicron led to global travel curbs, top-level government meetings, and pledges by vaccine manufacturers to start working on strain-specific vaccines only in case.
However, it has a long way to go to overcome the Delta variant as it dominates globally. Additionally, the long list of coronavirus variants that initially frightened the world before declining can remind us that viruses are unpredictable. Here below, we will discuss COVID-19 variants.
The Omicron coronavirus variant has prompted a new wave of travel restrictions and warnings. What makes Omicron different is the type and number of mutations. Omicron seems to have more mutations than Delta does. pic.twitter.com/d4jFqPeYWa
— PIX11 News (@PIX11News) November 29, 2021
Variants of Concern
The WHO designates COVID-19 variants as either variant of concern, which means they look dangerous enough to bear continual updates and scrutiny or variants under observation. At the moment, just five meet the definition for variants of concern, they are:
According to the World Health Organization, the South African scientists took the initial sample of B.1.1.529 or Omicron family on 9th November. The director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, Tulio de Oliveria, tweeted that Omicron seems to spread quickly. In addition, the genetic sequencing of the variant showed that it carried a vast number of worrisome mutations on the spike protein – the knoblike structure on the virus surface that it uses to grapple onto the cells it infects.
Some of those variant’s mutations previously recognized from other variants and known to make them more threatening, including E484A – a slightly modified version of a mutation called E484K that may make the coronavirus less recognizable to some antibodies against it – immune system proteins that are a frontline defense against the disease and that form the basis of monoclonal antibody treatments.
In addition, it carries a mutation named N501Y, which gave both Gamma and Alpha their intensified transmissibility. Scott Weaver from the University of Texas Medical Branch reported in the journal Nature that this specific mutation made the COVID-19 better at replicating in the higher airway (in the nose and throat) and possibly makes it more likely to propagate when people cough, sneeze and breathe.
Like Delta, the Omicron variant also carries a mutation named D614G, which seems to help the coronavirus better attach to the body cells it infects. The former chair of the Public Health Medicine Committee of the British Medical Association, Dr. Peter English, stated that the number of mutations per se doesn’t mean that the latest variant will cause several issues. However, it may make it more probable to look changed to the immune system.
The Mutations Might Help make the Virus Less Susceptible
Most of the leading COVID-19 vaccines target the spike protein. Moderna, AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and other vaccine companies all use only small genetic sequences or pieces of the virus in their vaccines instead of the whole virus. All of them use bits of the spike protein to provoke immunity. Thus, a change in the spike protein that made it less identifiable to human immune system proteins and cells stirred by a vaccine would be an issue.
Researchers and scientists will have to wait and watch if Omicron causes more breakthrough coronavirus infections than other variants. In addition, the fear is that the mutations of the variant might help make the virus less vulnerable to monoclonal antibody treatments. But World Health Organization says it is not likely these mutations would affect other coronavirus treatments, including antiviral medications in development and the steroid dexamethasone.
Thus far, Omicron detected in seventeen countries, including Botswana and South Africa, and among travelers to the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Israel, Belgium, Canada, Austria, Italy, and Australia, according to local officials and the GISAID statistics. It requires an additional layer of testing over and above standards tests to identify infection to tell which variant of COVID-19 infected somebody.
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