A pandemic-weary globe faces weeks of perplexing uncertainty as governments limit travel and take other precautions to combat the newest potentially lethal coronavirus mutant, omicron, before anybody knows how dangerous it is.
Will it spread even more quickly than the already highly infectious delta variant? Is it making people sicker? Is it able to circumvent vaccination protection or infect survivors? As scientists strive to uncover answers amid public scrutiny, there are many hypotheses but no strong proof.
“Pretty much the proper degree of freaking out,” says Trevor Bedford, a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who studies the development of the coronavirus.
Omicron may not be “as awful as we’re potentially expecting it could be,” he says, but “handling it as such at the time I believe is completely fair.”
Until recently, the world has been sluggish to respond to each coronavirus surprise. This time, an early warning from South Africa and Botswana may have provided a significant head start.
“It’s difficult to say: Have we just caught up to reality, and the world is now reacting with the necessary pace as varieties emerge?” Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who analyzes variations for a Harvard Medical School-led research partnership, was questioned.
WHY ARE YOU CONCERNED?
Omicron sparked concern since it included more mutations than previous variations. Perhaps 30 are at a critical location, the spike protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells.
Scientists have identified a few mutations from older variations that were more infectious or resisted immunization. But they’ve never seen this precise set of changes before.
According to Dr. William Moss of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the majority “are actually unique to this virus.” “It’s the combination of probable greater transmissibility and capacity — potential ability — to evade our immune system that has everyone concerned.”
“It’s a delicate balance,” Moss explained. “We want to take this seriously because of the mix of changes, but we also don’t want to panic or overreact until we understand more about this virus.”
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
Scientists don’t know if omicron produces more severe illness than other variations. While it has already been identified in a number of nations just days after its discovery, it is also too early to tell how contagious it is.
The alpha form, which arose approximately a year ago, was more contagious than the virus that launched the epidemic. Then came delta, which was significantly more infectious than alpha.
It’s unclear how omicron might compete in a country like the United States, where the powerful delta variation is responsible for more than 99 percent of current COVID-19 cases, according to Louis Mansky, head of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Molecular Virology.
Even in some places of South Africa, an increase in omicron-caused infections may not suggest that the mutant is more communicable than delta, according to Lemieux.
“We really don’t know if omicron is out-competing delta at all or if it’s just happened to become the dominant strain in a few spots,” he added.
Scientists are trying to figure out how omicron came to be in order to better comprehend it. It isn’t a descendant of the delta. One prominent explanation is that someone with a highly compromised immune system had a coronavirus infection that they couldn’t get rid of for so long that mutations accumulated.
“This is extremely strange,” said Bedford, who claims that circulating variations in the summer of 2020 look to be omicron’s closest cousins.
Viruses evolve as they propagate, and it’s probable that omicron was lurking undiscovered somewhere due to inadequate COVID-19 testing. However, Bedford believes that its abrupt presence is more likely the outcome of a cat-and-mouse game in which an immune-compromised body fights a virus that modifies its spike protein to evade detection. (The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press Health and Science Department, funds Bedford.)
WHAT TO BEWARE OF
According to scientists, it might take two to four weeks to receive some critical answers.
One of the most serious issues is how much omicron may elude immunization. So far, the beta version has posed the greatest barrier to vaccination protection, but thankfully, that mutant has not spread significantly.
“It is exceedingly improbable that this novel variety has avoided all antibodies created during vaccination,” said E. John Wherry, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Vaccine manufacturers and other experts are developing lab tests to determine how successfully antibodies created by vaccines or past infection combat omicron compared to older versions. It takes time because they must first develop samples of so-called “pseudoviruses” that have the concerning new mutations.
But, according to Moss, that “won’t be the end of the tale.”
Beyond antibodies, the immune system contains numerous layers of protection, including T cells, which should help people avoid serious illness even if they have a breakthrough infection.
Experts will also closely examine the occurrence and severity of omicron-caused illnesses.
In terms of therapies, Regeneron claims that their COVID-19 antibody cocktail may be less effective against omicron, although additional research is needed. However, several antiviral medicines are in the works, providing a much-needed new alternative that should be unaffected by omicron’s mutations.
WHAT SHOULD I DO NOW?
Scientists advise individuals to take simple measures while they wait for answers – mask inside, avoid crowds, and get vaccinated if you’re one among the 45 million adults in the United States who haven’t been inoculated — regardless of whatever variety is circulating.
One thing is certain: Vaccination is still essential. Regardless of whether omicron spreads or fizzles, today’s vaccinations protect against delta and other variants of the virus that are already doing havoc. The United States and other nations are pushing people who are eligible for boosters not to delay since the extra dose results in a massive surge of virus-fighting antibodies.
“People who are on the fence about getting vaccinated should see a compelling incentive to do so.” People who have not yet had their boosters but are eligible should do so. “After that, I believe we should delegate responsibility to scientists and public health practitioners,” Lemieux added.