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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

What you need to know about COVID-19’s newest variant Omicron

What is Omicron?

Omicron is the latest variant of SARS-CoV-2, the main virus that causes the COVID-19 disease responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on Nov. 24, 2021.
This latest variant has shown that it has over 50 mutations, 30 of those mutations being in the spike protein. What is meant by “mutation” is that there are changes in the gene of the virus, making it unique and different from others—not to the extent that it is considered a new virus, but to some degree that made scientists label it as concerning. As said, most mutations are in the spike protein, and it’s an area in every virus which functions to allow viruses to penetrate host cells and cause infection.

Due to its many mutations and in adhering with the protocols, the World Health Organization Technical Advisory Group declared this variant name as “Omicron,” with PANGO linage B.1.1.529, and as a variant of concern.

The main focus point of changes is the 30 amino acids that mutated; there were three small deletions, one insertion in the spike compared to the original virus—in which 15 is located in the receptor binding domain—along with other changes and deletions in other genomic areas.

In addition, this variant also has three mutations in the furin cleavage site which increases infectivity, making it a place of another concern to some scientists.

Although all mutations of the new variant are known, scientists are still grappling to discover more about its characteristics, especially when such mutations have not been seen in any of the other variants discovered. One main concern is that the spike protein has been heavily mutated, while being the main anti-genetic target of antibodies generated by many vaccines that have been widely administered. In theory, that’s the concern, but it is still to be proven in laboratories.

Public Health Reaction

The WHO is concerned about the many mutations this particular variant has, and this is why it has been labeled as “concerning.” Two things that many scientists predict with the mutations this variant has is that it may have an increased infectivity, which means that it may spread real quick, and antibody evasion, which means that it may escape the immune system response. Note that these observations are all theory based and it is still to be proven correct in laboratories in the coming weeks.

Symptoms & Severity

Reports coming from South Africa where the variant were first discovered do show that there are no changes in symptoms in comparison with the original and other variants of SARS-CoV-2. One noteworthy point is that symptoms were shown to be very mild and not as dangerous when initially thought of. Although the Omicron variant has spread quickly in South Africa, numbers of hospitalization cases remained low at the beginning but have increased in the last few days. It is yet to be known if that increase in hospitalization is due purely to the variant itself or the low vaccination rate that South Africa has.