For months, the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 haa traveled all over the globe, infecting millions of people and putting enormous pressure on many countries’ health systems. This week, a new and possibly more dangerous variant has been detected in South Africa. On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization named the new variant “Omicron” and classified it as a “variant of concern.”
Omicron was first reported on November 23, 2021 in the Gauteng province of South Africa – an urban area containing Pretoria and Johannesburg. However, the earliest samples indicate that the variant emerged from Botswana in the first half of November.
The variant contains a highly unusual constellation of mutations, including over 30 mutations on the spike protein. This suggests that Omicron might have emerged during a prolonged, chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, such as an HIV/AIDS patient.
Omicron’s mutations on the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter our body’s cells, are more than double those of Delta. The new spike protein mutations could potentially make the new variant capable of evading existing immune protection, reinfecting people recovered from COVID-19, and surpassing the protection offered by vaccines.
Moreover, since cases in South Africa surged from 273 to over 1,200 in less than a week – with preliminary analyses suggesting that Omicron has quickly become the dominant strain – this variant appears to be much more transmissible than Delta.
According to Dr. Ulrich Elling, a molecular biologist at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, a laboratory specializing in sequencing the coronavirus to detect new variants, the first estimates indicate the new variant “might be 500% more infectious than Delta.”
“Delta was about 60% more infectious than Alpha, so the spread that we will see around the globe is going to be much faster than we saw it for Delta,” he added.
On Friday, several countries all over the globe closed their borders with Southern African nations in the hope that they will manage to contain the emerging Omicron outbreak. However, cases have already been discovered outside the African continent in Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium. According to the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s Threat Assessment Brief from November 26, the chance of Omicron spreading through Europe ranges from “high” to “very high.”
The following days and weeks will be crucial in finding more details about the transmissibility, vaccine and existing treatment effectiveness, risk for reinfections, and other properties of the Omicron variant.