Recently, the media is full of news about the new variant of COVID 19 infection, which was detected for the first time in South Africa. The first case was diagnosed on 9th November 2021. This variant was initially labelled as B.1.1.529, and now it is called Omicron (a Greek alphabet). This variant has also been detected in several other countries including Botswana, Israel, Hong Kong and UK.
What is different about this variant of Covid?
It has too many mutations, about 50 in total; 32 of the mutations have been noted in the spike protein part of the virus (spike protein is responsible for virus’s entry into the human cells). This could make them more infectious and more transmissible from infected to the non-infected. South Africa has reported 4- fold increase in new cases of Covid infection during the past two weeks, coinciding with the emergence of this new variant.
What is WHO’S assessment of the new variant?
WHO organized a meeting of experts on 26th November to discuss the new variant. WHO designated the new variant as a “variant of concern”. This means that the Omicron variant is associated with greater risk of transmissibility. It could also mean that current diagnostics, vaccines and therapies may be less effective for this variant. Other variants of concern are alpha, beta, gamma and delta. The delta variant was first identified in India (October 2020) and was responsible for the second wave of covid 19 infections earlier this year.
Are the symptoms caused by the Omicron variant different?
Health authorities in South Africa have not reported any unusual symptoms due to omicron variant. This means the symptoms caused by this variant are similar to that of previous Covid virus infection. In addition, some cases of omicron variant infection remain asymptomatic (similar to usual covid infection).
Can routinely done RT-PCR tests detect the infection due to new variant?
As per the current data from South Africa, omicron variant has a deletion within the S gene, which allows for its rapid identification. This suggests that the sensitivity of the currently used RT-PCR kits would remain unaffected while testing for the new variant.
What precautions should we take?
1. Avoid leisure travel to South Africa and other countries that have reported cases of new variant.
2. Strictly screen people arriving from the affected countries and quarantine them for 10-14 days.
3. Vaccination of the eligible people should be our topmost priority. Booster dose (third dose of the vaccine) should be given to high-risk people (Govt of India should release the guidelines for booster dose at the earliest).
4. Covid-appropriate behavior should be continued-such as wearing mask in public places, avoiding large gatherings, social distancing and hand sanitising.
Dr Sudhir Kumar
Sr Consultant Neurologist,
Apollo Hospitals, Hyderabad.