As the world reopens after 18-20 months of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, a new variant of the coronavirus -- B.1.1.529 -- has been identified in South Africa, now being called 'Omicron'. This has left the scientific community worried, as they fear that this new strain could fuel outbreaks in several countries and cripple health systems once again.
Why is it called 'Omicron'?
The WHO has been naming new strains of the virus after letters in the Greek alphabet. Going by the order of the Greek alphabet, this one should have been called 'Nu'. But that was skipped because it could be confused with the word 'new'.
The next Greek letter is 'Xi' but that was also skipped reportedly because it has the same name as the Chinese President Xi Jinping! So, Omicron jumped the queue.
What do we know so far?
Here are five things you should know about this new Covid variant that has forced a number of countries, including the UK, Israel, Pakistan, Italy and Singapore, to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region.
According to South African health officials, the 'B.1.1.529' variant has many more mutations than scientists expected, especially after a severe third wave, which was driven by the Delta variant. Many of the mutations are of concern for immune evasion and transmissibility.
'Omicron' carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus' entry into cells in the human body. The B.1.1.529 variant has 50 mutations overall, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone which is the target of most current Covid vaccines.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant. Scientists have said it is the most heavily mutated version yet, which means vaccines, which were designed using the original strain from Wuhan in China, may not be as effective. The WHO has called a meeting to discuss Omicron variant and decide if it will be officially designated a variant of concern.
First identified in South Africa this week, the strain has spread to nearby countries, including Botswana. Israel has identified a case of a Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations "in a person who returned from Malawi". Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong. India has called for rigorous screening of passengers from South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.
There is still speculation floating around the variant's origin. According to Francois Balloux, Director of the London-based UCL Genetics Institute, the new strain "likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient".
Here's what scientists know of the new Covid variant 'Omicron'
Why are scientists worried about it?
The variant has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein – more than twice the number carried by Delta. This has raised concerns that the antibodies from previous infections/vaccination may no longer be well matched.
Will I get infected?
Scientists anticipate that the virus will be more likely to infect or reinfect people who have immunity to earlier variants.
Is it more transmissible?
The emerging picture is worrisome. There has been a surge of cases in South Africa from 273 cases on 16 November to more than 1,200 by the start of this week.
Will vaccines work against the new variant?
Scientists say the variant has developed an ability to evade existing immune protection. Studies are being conducted to test how effectively antibodies neutralise the new variant. Scientists feel that the variant will be recognisable to existing antibodies, but not entirely. So, the current vaccines may give less protection.
Will it cause more severe Covid?
There is no data yet on this. Since there is a lag between infections and more serious illnesses, it will take several weeks before any clear data is available on this.
Can the existing vaccines be tweaked to take on the virus?
Scientists are working on updating the existing vaccines with the new spike protein to make the new variant ineffective.
How soon may the variant spread around the world?
At present, the majority of confirmed cases are confined to South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong. A case has also been detected in Israel.
Since there is community transmission in South Africa, it is likely that the new variant has already spread undetected to other countries.
What are the precautions to take?
Get both your jabs. Wear masks. Ensure social distancing and also that rooms are well-ventilated. Avoid large gatherings. Practice hand hygiene.