Experts say it’s too early to worry about the Omicron variant in the US
What’s so worrying about the variant?
Experts say it’s the “worst variant they’ve ever seen” and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Experts fear the changes could make vaccines 40 percent less effective at best.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 relate to the virus’s spike protein.
The current crop of vaccines allows the body to recognize the peak version of older versions of the virus.
The Botswana variant has about 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines allows the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations can make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system has trouble recognizing and fighting it. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it penetrate the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it lacks a membrane protein (NSP6) seen in previous iterations of the virus, which experts believe could make it more contagious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern to date and have been linked to infectiousness
But because the spike protein looks so different in the new species, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognize it and fight it off.
It also contains mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won’t know for at least two weeks how much more contagious the virus is and may not know its impact on hospitalizations and deaths from Covid for up to six weeks.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.
It carries the P681H and N679K mutations that are “rarely seen together” and could make it even more puncture resistant.
These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into body cells.
And the N501Y mutation may make the strain more transmissible and has been previously seen in the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta, among others.
Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more contagious, while a mutation missing in this variant (NSP6) could increase transmissibility.
It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant, which made it better able to evade vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked to a spate of cases in the state in March — that have been linked to antibody escapes.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R, and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Is it a variant of care?
The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a “variant of concern,” the label given to the highest-risk strains.
This means that WHO experts have concluded that its mutations allow it to spread more quickly, cause more serious disease or hinder protection against vaccines.
Where has the variant been detected so far?
The variant has so far been spotted in five countries: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
Most cases have been reported in Gauteng, a province in northeastern South Africa where Johannesburg is located.
The first case was uploaded by Hong Kong to the international variant database GISAID and was spotted in someone traveling to the country from South Africa.
No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists are not sequencing every positive Covid sample in the UK and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.
This means that there may be people infected with the variant in Great Britain.
What is the UK doing with the variant?
The health minister announced last night that six countries will be added to the red list from 12 noon on Friday, November 26.
The countries on the red list are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This means that all direct flights from these countries to the UK are banned.
Anyone arriving in England from these countries between 12 noon today and 4 a.m. Sunday – or who has been in the countries in the past 10 days – will be required to complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and undergo a PCR test.
Anyone arriving from these countries after 4 a.m. on a Sunday will be required to stay in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days and take a Covid test on or before the second day of their stay, as well as another test on or after day eight.
And the UK Health Security Agency classified B.1.1.529 as a variant under investigation, meaning it has mutations of concern.
Experts will now conduct a risk assessment and may rank up to Variant or Concern if it is confirmed to be more contagious, cause more serious disease, or make vaccines and drugs less effective.
Where did B.1.1.529 first originate?
The first case was uploaded by Hong Kong to the international variant database GISAID on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was on his way to the country from South Africa.
The UK was the first country to identify the virus could be a threat and warned other countries.
Since then, 77 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, two in Hong Kong and three in Botswana.
Health chiefs in Israel announced today that it had one confirmed and two suspected B.1.1.529 cases, while there are two suspected cases in Belgium.
Experts think the species may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa hasn’t sequenced many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first showed up.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline that the virus likely originated in an ongoing infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems, infections can last for months because the body cannot stand them. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to evade the body’s defenses.
Am I protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned that the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 percent less effective.
But they said the rise of the mutated variant makes it even more important to get a booster shot when people become eligible for it.
The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has, the better, experts said.
British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘The booster shot was important before we knew about this variant, but now it couldn’t be more important.’
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths are still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about portability in two to three weeks.
But it may take four to six weeks for them to learn more about hospitalizations and deaths.
What is the name of the variant?
The species was given the scientific name B.1.1.529 on November 24, a day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.
The variants that have been given an official name so far are Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts from the World Health Organization called the variant Omicron on November 26.