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Omicron: 5 things you should know about this deadly super Covid variant B.1.1.529

New variant of the coronavirus -- called B.1.1.529 or Omicron -- has been identified in South Africa that has left the scientific community worried. Here are five things you should know about this deadly super Covid variant.

Agencies Written by: Agencies
New Delhi Published on: November 27, 2021 22:09 IST
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Image Source : FILE PHOTO

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Highlights

  • World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified the new Covid variant as the 'Variant of Concern'
  • First identified in South Africa this week, the strain has spread to nearby countries
  • B.1.1.529 or Omicron carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein

As the world reopens after 18-20 months of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, a new variant of the coronavirus -- called B.1.1.529 or Omicron -- has been identified in South Africa that has left the scientific community worried, as they fear that this new strain could fuel outbreaks in several countries and cripple health systems once again. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified the new Covid variant as the 'Variant of Concern' following the Technical Advisory Group meeting on Friday.

"Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a Variant of Concern and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron", said the global health body in a statement.

Here are five things you should know about this deadly super Covid variant that has forced a number of countries, including the UK, Israel, Italy and Singapore, to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region.

1. According to South African health officials, the 'B.1.1.529' variant or Omicron has many more mutations than scientists expected, especially after a severe third wave, which was driven by the Delta variant. Many of the mutations are of concern for immune evasion and transmissibility.

2. B.1.1.529 or Omicron carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus' entry into cells in the human body. The B.1.1.529 variant has 50 mutations overall, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone which is the target of most current Covid vaccines.

3. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant. Scientists have said it is the most heavily mutated version yet, which means vaccines, which were designed using the original strain from Wuhan in China, may not be as effective. The WHO has officially designated a variant of concern.

4. First identified in South Africa this week, the strain has spread to nearby countries, including Botswana. Israel has identified a case of a Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations "in a person who returned from Malawi". Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong. India has called for rigorous screening of passengers from South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.

5. There are still speculations floating around the variant's origin. According to Francois Balloux, Director of the London-based UCL Genetics Institute, the new strain "likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient".

FAQs about Omicron or new Covid variant B.1.1.529

Why are scientists worried about this new variant?

It appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus' spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people. Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggest the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known.”

She said it would take several weeks to do the necessary lab tests to determine if current coronavirus vaccines are still effective against the new variant. Peacock also said there was no indication that the variant causes more lethal disease.

Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said the sharp rate of COVID-19 infections in South Africa, and particularly in Gauteng province, was concerning.

“The biggest risk is that (this variant) is better at re-infecting people as well as being more transmissible and virulent,” he said in a statement.

But Balloux said it was unclear at this stage whether this is because the virus is inherently more infectious.

He emphasized that while it was possible that the new variant is able to reinfect previously immunized people, “we cannot make any robust predictions based on its genetic make-up alone about its expected transmissibility or virulence.”

How did this new variant arise?

The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out.
Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or deadly, but they cannot determine that simply by looking at the virus.

They must compare the pattern of disease in outbreaks to the genetic sequences and sorting out whether there is an actual connection can take time.

Some scientists have speculated that the new variant arose in an immune-compromised patient because of the large number of mutations.

Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in someone who was infected but could then not clear the virus, giving the virus the chance to genetically evolve," in a scenario similar to how experts think the alpha variant — which was first identified in England — also emerged.

-- with inputs from IANS, PTI

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