Complex Made Simple

Omicron, the new COVID-19 variant, causing great concern

 A new variant of coronavirus has scientists worried since it has twice the number of mutations seen on the Delta variant

The new variant, named B1.1.529, has 32 mutations in its spike protein The earliest sample showing the variant was collected in Botswana on November 11, 2021 The recently approved antiviral drugs, such as Merck’s pill, will work as effectively against the new variant

 A new variant of coronavirus has scientists worried since it has twice the number of mutations seen on the Delta variant. The news comes shortly after infections have spiked in European countries like Austria and Germany, even after vaccinating over 60% of their population.  

Over the summer, the Delta variant that had 11-15 mutations in its spike protein became the dominant infection around the world.

The new variant, named B1.1.529, has 32 mutations in its spike protein which could significantly alter the virus’ structure.

Even the vaccinated may not be protected against the new variant, Business Insider reported. Details as to whether the new variant is more infectious or causes more severe infections are still unknown.

Although the total number of cases caused by the new variant was quite low at the moment, the variant was spreading rapidly in South Africa, out-competing even the Delta variant. 

The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on November 24, 2021. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of this variant.  

The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.  

WHO considers this variant a VOC (variant of concern) and named it Omicron.

What we know of Omicron

The chief medical adviser to the UK Health and Security Agency described the variant as the “most worrying we’ve seen.”

The earliest sample showing the variant was collected in Botswana on November 11, 2021. Scientists say the variant has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein – the key used by the virus to unlock our body’s cells – more than double the number carried by Delta.

Such a dramatic change has raised concerns that the antibodies from previous infections or vaccination may no longer be well matched.  

There has been a surge of cases in South Africa from 273 cases on November 16 to more than 1,200 by the start of this week. More than 80% of these were from Gauteng province and preliminary analysis suggests the variant has rapidly become the dominant strain.

Scientists are concerned by the ability of some mutations to evade existing immune protection but do not expect that the variant will be entirely unrecognizable to existing antibodies.

Scientists expect that recently approved antiviral drugs, such as Merck’s pill, will work as effectively against the new variant because these drugs do not target the spike protein but instead work by stopping the virus from replicating.  

Francois Balloux, an epidemiologist and director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, told the BBC on Friday that the early discovery of the variant could render it easier to contain.

He suggested that it should be seen an irritating setback rather than a rebirth of the pandemic.

One positive so far, however, is that the variant has not yet been associated with more severe cases of COVID-19.

Saudi announced the suspension of flights from seven African countries on Friday due to the emergence of the new variant.

The Ministry of Interior said it had been decided to suspend flights from and to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini, the Saudi Press Agency reported. Entry to the Kingdom is suspended for non-nationals who come directly and indirectly from the aforementioned countries.  Exceptions include those who have spent a period of no less than 14 days in another country from which health procedures in the Kingdom allow entry, in accordance with the approved health procedures.  A period of five days quarantine will be applied to all excluded groups coming from these countries, including citizens of the Kingdom, regardless of the status of immunization.

The UAE also suspended flights Friday from seven southern African nations because of a new coronavirus variant.  The Emirates News Agency, WAM, said on Twitter that travel bans for South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini will take effect beginning Monday.

Qatar also updated its travel and return policy for exceptional red list countries following the emergence of the new variant, according to its Ministry of Public Health.

The rest of the GCC imposed heavy restrictions on travelers from these African countries on Saturday.