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Opinions of Sunday, 28 November 2021

Columnist: Dr. Banda A Khalifa

What we know about the new COVID-19 variant 'Omicron'

The new variant was announced by the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 The new variant was announced by the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19

Earlier on November 26, 2021,  the World Health Organization’s Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 declared a new strain B.1.1.529 a variant of concern (VOC) and named it "Omicron."   

The WHO usually designates COVID-19 strains as variants of concern (VOC) or variants of interest (VOI) based on certain key features.  The new variant was classified as a VOC because - It has genetic changes that can make it more transmissible, cause more severe disease, and render public health measures, vaccines, and other therapeutics less effective. Omicron is the 5th VOC since the COVID-19 was declared a pandemic: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron. 

Place of Detection:

The first case was sequenced and reported by the Centre for Epidemic Response & innovation (CERI) in South Africa.  The Omicron variant was detected in the Guateng province in South Africa.  So far, there have been three reported cases in Botswana, six in South Africa, and one in a person in Hong Kong who had just returned from traveling in South Africa.  However, it may be possible that it is more widespread than currently reported. 

What makes Omicron different from Delta?

Omicron variant has over 50 mutations (Changes in genetic make-up), with over 30 changes to the spike protein.  The spike protein (which helps the virus enter human cells and is a target for COVID-19 vaccines) is the most critical component of the virus in terms of transmissibility and vaccine efficacy.   This makes it the most mutated variant since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.  

Transmissibility.

The omicron variant has gone from not really detected to be present in most samples in South Africa. Initial data suggest that it is quickly out-pacing other variants, including Delta. 

Severity of Infection

There is still limited data on the severity of infection caused by Omicron.

Will current Vaccine’s work:  

There is limited data to determine the extent to which Omicron evades vaccine-induced immunity. Though Omicron has mutations associated with resistance to neutralizing antibodies, it is less likely to become an escape variant that completely avoids immunity from vaccines.   This is because the current vaccines offer some flexibility to fight off different versions of the virus that are somewhat different from the original one. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of existing vaccines may likely reduce.  The South African Minister of Health has however, indicated that current evidence does not suggest that Omicron evade current vaccines. 

Measures taken and next steps: The United States and other European countries, including the UK, have announced sweeping restrictions on travel from primarily Southern African countries to contain the spread of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron.   These restrictions apply to South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho. Beyond the travel ban, we should continue our preventive practices like wearing masks, keeping physical distancing, good hands, and respiratory hygiene in addition to increasing vaccine access to all eligible to receive vaccines.  Boosters should be available to all eligible adults. 

Way Forward for Ghana: The new variant emphasizes the importance of ensuring vaccines are made easily available to all eligible adults.  The public health infrastructure in Ghana should be on high alert to make sure we do not enter another wave of infections.  The global community should ensure that Ghana and other developing countries have access to more COVID-19 vaccines as early as possible. Our scientists should be well equipped to perform viral sequencing more often to ensure that we detect new variants as soon as possible.   We must continue to educate the Public and make them aware that the fight against the pandemic is not over yet.

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