As the omicron coronavirus strain expands in southern Africa and appears in countries throughout the world, scientists are keeping a close eye on a battle that could determine the pandemic’s fate. Can the latest challenger to the world’s dominant delta dethrone it?
Based on research from South Africa and the United Kingdom, some scientists believe omicron will win.
“It’s still early days, but data is starting to come in, indicating that omicron is likely to outcompete delta in many, if not all, places,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who tracks variants for a Harvard Medical School-led research group.
Others, however, cautioned Monday that it’s too early to tell whether omicron will spread faster than delta or, if it does, how quickly it will take over.
“Especially here in the United States, where we’re seeing huge surges in delta, I think we’ll know in about two weeks whether omicron is going to replace it,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Many crucial concerns about omicron remain unsolved, such as whether the virus causes milder or more severe sickness and how much it may be able to avoid immunity from previous COVID-19 illness or immunizations.
Concerning the spread of omicron, scientists point to what is happening in South Africa, where it was first discovered. The speed with which Omicron infects people and gains near domination in South Africa has health experts concerned that the country is at the beginnings of a new wave that might overwhelm hospitals.
South Africa went from a period of minimal transmission, with less than 200 new cases per day on average in mid-November, to more over 16,000 per day over the weekend, thanks to the new variation. According to specialists, Omicron accounts for more than 90% of new cases in Gauteng province, the hub of the new wave. The new variation is quickly spreading and gaining control in South Africa’s remaining eight regions.
“The virus is spreading quite quickly,” said Willem Hanekom, director of Africa Health Research Institute. “If you look at the slopes of this wave that we’re in right now, it’s a far steeper slope than South Africa’s first three waves.” This suggests that it is rapidly spreading and, as a result, may be a highly transmissible virus.”
However, Hanekom, who is also co-chair of the South African COVID-19 Variants Research Consortium, stated that because there were so few delta cases in South Africa when omicron appeared, “I don’t think we can conclude” it out-competed delta.
According to scientists, it is unknown whether omicron will behave similarly in other nations as it has in South Africa. There are already some signs about how it might behave, according to Lemieux; in areas like the United Kingdom, which undertakes a lot of genome sequencing, “we’re seeing what appears to be an exponential increase of omicron over delta.”
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty” in the United States, as well as the rest of the world, he said. “However, when you combine the early data, a consistent picture emerges: that omicron is already here, and based on what we’ve seen in South Africa, it’s likely to become the dominant strain in the coming weeks and months, causing a jump in case numbers.”
It remains to be seen what this means for public health. According to Hanekom, preliminary data from South Africa reveal that reinfection rates with omicron are substantially greater than with prior forms, implying that the virus is evading immunity. It also suggests that the virus appears to be attacking younger people, primarily those who have not been immunized, and that most cases in hospitals have been rather mild.
But, according to Binnicker, things could go differently in other parts of the world or with different types of people. “It’ll be particularly intriguing to watch what happens if more infections arise in elderly folks or those with underlying health issues,” he says. “What happened to those patients?”
While the world waits for answers, scientists advise people to do whatever they can to safeguard themselves.
“We want to ensure that people have as much immunity as possible from immunization.” “If people aren’t immunized, they should get vaccinated,” Lemieux says. “If people are eligible for boosters, they should receive them, and then do all of the other things we know are beneficial for decreasing transmission — masking, social distancing, and avoiding large indoor gatherings, especially without masks.”