South Africa has detected a new variant of coronavirus in its territory, baptized as omicron or B.1.1.529 and, as with the beating of a butterfly’s wings, the alert has spread throughout the world. The United Kingdom, Israel, the European Union and other governments are imposing restrictions on arrivals from the country, while the scientific community works to learn more about it “high number of mutations” concentrated in a single variant. For its part, the WHO has already defined it as “worrisome” and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) warns: the risk of transmission in Europe is “high to very high”.
Many mutations, what are the risks?
“The new variant is really worrying at the mutational level, “said Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa and one of the leading scientists working on genome sequencing. Although the risks are still not exactly known (if it is more contagious , causes more serious disease or escapes vaccines) South African researchers have explained that omicron contains more than 30 mutations in the protein spike of the coronavirus, which is what allows entry into human cells and on which the effectiveness of vaccines is based.
“It has characteristics and mutations of the other four variants of interest. It behaves similarly to alpha in some diagnostic tests; has mutations that are very similar to beta and gamma variants, which confer some level of immune escape; and has mutations that are close to the furin cleavage site of the virus that allow the Delta variant to be more transmissible. So, at first glance, it seems that this variant has the two features that concern us the most, which are a high transmissibility and a certain level of immune escape “, explained, for his part, researcher Salim Abdool Karim, former president of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, as reported by Reuters.
The scientist, however, has recalled that these are only indications, “extrapolations” based on the mutations that have been observed, but “they are not facts.” The existence of the variant has only just been discovered and “we have been fortunate to identify it quite early,” said Salim Abdool Karim.
Is it more contagious?
It is still not clear if omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant, predominant in the world today, although “everything seems to indicate that it is,” as recognized by epidemiologist Daniel López Acuña in RNE. As the World Health Organization (WHO) recalls, “We don’t know too much about her yet.” The international entity is conducting epidemiological studies to be able to To determine whether the increase in cases in the areas of South Africa affected by omicron is due to the variant or to other social factors.
And, precisely because of this lack of knowledge, variant B.1.1.529 is arousing so much debate and interest from the scientific community. It is not enough to study the genome, it is necessary to observe how it behaves in reality, “because when mutations are combined many times it is not exactly the same that when we look at each one individually “, Iñaki Comas, researcher at the CSIC’s Institute of Biomedicine of Valencia, has contributed in another interview in RNE.
But, Why so much alarm with few sequenced cases? Mireia Coscollá, a microbiologist from the University of Valencia and the CSIC, has explained it on Channel 24 Horas of TVE: “There are few cases detected, but in a very short period, that indicates that there is a lot of transmission.”
Does it cause a more serious illness?
Beyond contagiousness, the question revolves around the severity of omicron disease. Again, data is still lacking, but the first information allows us to affirm that the symptoms are very similar to those of the other known variants and are mild in those vaccinated who are infected. “Our hospital surveillance shows a small rebound, but nothing as dramatic as in previous waves. So the outlook is good, although we are in the early days” of the research, explained Barry Schoub, scientific adviser to the South African government.
The WHO has detailed that there is “an increase in hospitalization rates in South Africa, but this may be due to the increase in the total number of people who become infected, rather than a result of the specific infection with omicron.” In a report this Monday, he pointed out that the first outbreaks have occurred among college students, that is, younger people who tend to suffer from a milder disease.
In any case, it must also be taken into account that the new variant circulates especially in countries with low vaccination rates, which is why they are more unprotected against severe COVID-19. In South Africa, less than 25% of the population has received the full course of vaccines and coverage is even lower in neighboring countries.
Furthermore, so far, it has been reported anecdotal cases of reinfections and in vaccinated people, But “at this stage it is too early to say anything,” said Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, whose team is working on deciphering the ability of B.1.1.529 to escape the protection of vaccines, such as already did with the beta variant.
They are concerned about mutations in the protein spike, which is the part of the virus that antibodies recognize to act, however, Moore has also warned that there are indications that the new variant could bypass the immunity conferred by T cells, another important tool of our immune system, as stated in a note in Nature.
In any case, the WHO has stressed in its report that “current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death”, as well as current treatments (corticosteroids and IL6 receptor blockers) in case of infection. This issue will continue to be evaluated at all times to know the impact and be able to act on it.
Where was it detected and where is it circulating?
The researchers detected variant B.1.1.529 by sequencing in South Africa, but after the discovery other countries have joined, such as Botswana, Israel or China. They have also raised their arms in Europe, from Belgium, Italy, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark and the Czech Republic. This Monday, November 29, the first cases were reported in the Iberian Peninsula: 13 positive in Portugal and The WHO has warned that the risk of the variant being transmitted worldwide is “high”.
In the country of origin, estimates indicate that its circulation could already be high, at least in the province of Gauteng, where the most populous city in the country, Johannesburg, is located and the first outbreak has been identified. The director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation of South Africa, Tulio de Oliveira, indicated on Twitter that they “estimate” that the new variant represents 90% of that region, which registers an increase in incidence in recent days. According to the scientist, B.1.1.529 can be detected by a normal PCR, which “will make it easier for the world to track it.”
Yet the world’s health authorities insist that the same measures as always are valid against the coronavirus: vaccinations and, when necessary, safety distance, use of masks, ventilation and hygiene. Similarly, the WHO has urged countries to increase surveillance and sequencing of cases, as well as the provision of medical services and public health, and to share the information they collect with the world, as South Africa has done in an exemplary way.
The world is shielded from South Africa, which asks for help and more vaccines
As soon as the alarm was raised and fear spread, Israel closed its borders with South Africa, like the United Kingdom, which has also shielded other neighboring countries: Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Next, the European Commission proposed this Friday to suspend flights from the southern African region, a measure that EU countries, including Spain, have already begun to apply.
“The world should provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate them! By protecting and supporting it, we will protect the world!” Oliveira urged in a tweet. For the World Health Organization, the solution does not lie either in closing the borders, but in ending inequity in access to vaccines against COVID-19. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeated his warning: “The longer vaccine injustice persists, the more opportunities this virus will have to spread and evolve in ways we cannot predict or prevent. “
Meanwhile, a WHO task force continues to work to better understand the impact of the omicron, something that could still take a few weeks.