As the world reopens after 18-20 months of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, a new variant of the coronavirus --Omicron -- has been identified in South Africa. 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. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified Omicron as a variant of concern though not much is known yet about this variant. It is believed to be more transmissible and immune-evasive.
The new Covid variant has also triggered apprehension in India with Prime Minister Narendra Modi instructing officials to be proactive and review the guidelines for international travel.
Based on the information available so far, Professor Andrew Pollard, the British scientist who led the research underpinning AstraZeneca's coronavirus jab, said Saturday that existing vaccines should work against the new strain, but that would only become apparent after more research in the coming weeks. "It's extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year (with the Delta variant) is going to happen," he told BBC radio.
Prof Pollard, who is the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said if required, "the processes of how one goes about developing a new vaccine are increasingly well-oiled, so if it's needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly."
Prof Pollard further said it is "too early" to be certain whether the new variant will be able to evade current vaccinations, something unlikely to be known for up to three weeks. He said that most of the mutations in Omicron are in the same parts of the spike protein as those in the other variants that have emerged.
"At least from a speculative point of view, "we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease, but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed," Prof Pollard went on to observe.
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Meanwhile, Professor Calum Semple, a microbiologist from the UK government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), too struck a note of caution given the worldwide concern around the new Omicron variant.
"This is not a disaster, and the headlines from some of my colleagues saying 'this is horrendous' I think are hugely overstating the situation," Professor Semple told the BBC.
"Immunity from vaccination is still likely to protect you from severe disease. You might get a snuffle or a headache or a filthy cold but your chance of coming into hospital, or intensive care or sadly dying are greatly diminished by the vaccine and still will be going into the future," he said.
"If you can slow the virus coming into your country, it gives you more time for your booster campaign to get ahead of it. It also gives the scientists longer to understand more about the virus in case there is anything we really should be worrying about," he said.
Dr Samiran Panda, the head of epidemiology and communicable diseases division of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), meanwhile, said mRNA vaccines against Covid might not be effective against Omicron.
"mRNA vaccines are directed towards spike protein and receptor interaction. So mRNA vaccines need to be tweaked around this change already observed. But not all vaccines are similar. Covishield and Covaxin produce immunity through a different antigen presentation to our system," Dr Panda was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.
Dr Panda said scientists have so far observed structural changes in Omicron. But more studies are required to confirm that the variant is deadlier than the other variants of Covid.
"Structural changes have been observed in a newly reported emerging variant which is indicative of a possibility for adherence to cell, cellular receptors with an increased affinity, with the possibility of transmission," Dr Panda said.
But whether the variant is getting transmitted really fast or is causing clusters of infection that require a little more time to come up needs to be examined. By examination, he meant laboratory-based observations, population-based studies, Dr Panda said.