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Omicron: What we know and don’t know about the new COVID variant

LONDON (AP) – South African scientists have identified a new version of the coronavirus that they say is behind the recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the most populous province of the country.

It’s not clear where the new variant first appeared, but scientists in South Africa have warned the World Health Organization in recent days, and it has now been seen in visitors to several countries, from Australia, Israel to the Netherlands.

On Friday, the WHO designated it a “variant of interest”, naming it “omicron” after a letter of the Greek alphabet.

What do we know about Omicron?

Health Secretary Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential increase” in cases over the past few days.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa has seen the number of daily new cases soar to more than 3,200 on Saturday, the most in Gauteng.

Struggling to explain the sudden increase in cases, scientists studied virus samples and discovered a new variant. Now, up to 90% of new cases in Gauteng are caused by it, based on Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform.

Why are scientists worried about this new variant?

After convening a panel of experts to evaluate the data, WHO said that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant” compared with other variants.

That means people who have had COVID-19 and have recovered can be arrested again.

This variant appears to have a high number of mutations – around 30 – in the mutant protein of the coronavirus, which could affect how easily it spreads to humans.

Sharon Peacock, who has led genome sequencing of COVID-19 in the UK at the University of Cambridge, said the data to date shows that the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility”. , but says that “the significance of many mutations is unknown.”

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the omicron as “the most mutated version of the virus we’ve ever seen”, including disturbing changes never before seen in the same virus.

What is known and unknown about variation?

Scientists know that the omicron is genetically distinct from earlier variants including beta and delta variants, but do not know whether these genetic changes make it contagious or dangerous. are not. So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more severe disease.

It may take several weeks to sort out whether omicrons are more infectious and whether a vaccine is still effective against it.

Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was “very unlikely” that current vaccines would not work, noting that they were effective against many other variants.

While some genetic changes in omicrons may seem worrisome, it remains unclear whether they pose a public health threat. Some earlier variants, like the beta variant, initially alarmed scientists but ultimately did not spread.

Peacock from the University of Cambridge said: “We don’t know if this new variant will be able to gain a foothold in the lowlands. “The jury is out on how well this variant will perform when there are other variations circulating.”

Delta is by far the most dominant form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of sequences submitted to the world’s largest public database.

How did this new variant arise?

Coronavirus mutates as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with disturbing genetic changes, often die off. Scientists track COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more contagious or deadly, but they can’t determine that simply by looking at the virus.

Peacock said the variant “could have evolved in a person who was infected but was then unable to eliminate the virus, giving the virus an opportunity to genetically evolve”, in a scenario similar to how experts think the alpha variant – first identified in the UK – also came about, by mutating in an immunocompromised person.

Are the travel restrictions being imposed by some countries reasonable?

Probably.

Israel is barring foreigners from entering the county and Morocco has stopped all incoming international air travel.

Several other countries are restricting flights coming from southern Africa.

Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London, said with the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, it was “cautious” to restrict travel from the region and would give the administration more time, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.

But the WHO noted that such restrictions are often limited in effect and urged countries to keep their borders open.

Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, thinks that early detection of the new variant could mean that restrictions implemented now will have a larger impact than when the variant was. delta appears for the first time.

“With delta, it took many, many weeks after India’s terrible wave before it became clear what was going on and delta had seeded itself in many parts of the world and it was too late to solve the problem,” he said. this subject”. “We may be at an earlier point in time with this new variant, so there may still be time to do something about it.”

The South African government says the country is being treated unfairly because it has advanced genetic sequencing and can detect the variant faster, and asked other countries to reconsider travel bans. calendar.

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https://kdvr.com/news/omicron-what-we-know-and-dont-know-on-new-covid-variant/ Omicron: What we know and don’t know about the new COVID variant

Emma Bowman

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