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'Worried About Transmissibility, But Not Sure': Scientists Grapple with the Omicron Variant Panic; Urge Rigorous Testing, Vax

Scientists encourage ramping up testing as Omicron sparks fears. (Image for representation: AFP)

Scientists encourage ramping up testing as Omicron sparks fears. (Image for representation: AFP)

A US researcher said that the variant needs to be tracked closely to understand its severity.

With limited data on the new variant B.1.1.529 – renamed Omicron by the World Health Organization – scientists are unclear as to how infections caused by it will progress. Salim Abdool Karim, one of South Africa’s top epidemiologists, said of the new variant that it was “important to deal with it globally," pointing out that the Delta variant had spread to 53 countries within three weeks of it being identified.

The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate evasion of immunity, Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform told NYT.

ALSO READ | Journey of Omicron: From Botswana to Belgium, How New Covid Variant is Fast Jumping Continents

KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) genome sequencer Professor Tulio de Oliveira said the new variant “is concerning for predicted immune-evasion and transmissibility". “This variant surprised us… It has a big jump on evolution," said Professor de Oliveira, News 24 reported.

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He added it had 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. We can see the variant potentially spreading very fast… We do expect, unfortunately, to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks,” he said.

“All these things are what give us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” Dr. Lessells said.

Another scientist pointed out there were early signs from diagnostic lab tests this variant might already be present in many of the other provinces, although he cautioned this was based on a much smaller number of positive PCR tests.

Ashish K Jha, researcher and Dean at Brown Public Health, United States said that the variant must be tracked closely to know the severity of infections it causes. Jha, in a series of tweets, detailed that to understand the new variant, three factors need to be focused on – the transmissibility, the severity, and the immune escape.

Firstly, it needs to be seen if Omicron is more transmissible than the current strain Delta. “On transmissibility, data looks worrisome. It has taken off quickly in South Africa,” he refers to a graph comparing case count from Beta, Delta, and Omicron. As cases in South Africa are low right now, the rapid takeover could be driven in part by other factors, Jha says, adding. “so yes, am worried about transmissibility. But not sure.”

On the next factor, severity, Jha says it is too early to tell. “But obviously it needs to be tracked closely.” The third issue, according to Jha, is around the immune escape. “Do antibodies generated by our immune system have a harder to neutralizing it? And what about T-cells and their ability to manage infections?” There is not much knowledge around these questions, but, Jha says, “there is at least some reason for concern,”

Although there are a series of mutations in key regions that may impact effectiveness of our vaccines, it is highly unlikely that it will render vaccines useless, says Jha. He further said that testing should be ramped and cautioned people to stay vigilant. “Get vaccinated, boosted. Get the world vaccinated.”

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first published:November 27, 2021, 09:21 IST