What We Know About The Omicron COVID-19 Variant

Welcome back to Healthy Mind - Think Big on November 26th, 2021, the WHO designated variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, named OMICRON. This was done on the advice of the WHO's Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution. The decision was based on the evidence presented that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves. But the flood of Omicron news has been rather overwhelming. The endless data, anecdotes, and studies are hard enough to understand. But what makes the information even harder to process is that so much evidence is intertwined with opinion.  

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In today's post, we'll give you a better understanding of what Omicron actually is. From how Transmissible it is, where the name comes from to how severe it is, and more, read till the end to learn about all of them.

Let's begin by telling you why the Variant is Named "Omicron". While picking a name for the variants of SARS- CoV2, the World Health Organization has so far skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet, one of which also happens to be a popular surname in China, shared by the Chinese President. The WHO has been using Greek letters to refer to the most widely prevalent coronavirus variants, which otherwise carry long scientific names. It has already used 12 letters of the Greek alphabet before this new variant emerged. The WHO selected Omicron for this one, avoiding confusion or offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups. Their decision to skip the two letters and use the next available one to name the latest variant has generated a lot of curiosity and interest on the internet. Depending on the threat they pose, the WHO classifies new variants either as 'variants under monitoring-VUMs', 'variants of interest-Vols' or 'variants of concern-VoCs'. All have scientific names representing their chain of evolution. The Omicron variant, for example, is also known by its more scientific designation  B.1.1.529. This designation shows that the variant has evolved from the B.1 variant. Since the scientific names are not easy to remember, the more widely prevalent variants were named after the country from which they were first reported. Accordingly, there used to be a UK variant, an Indian variant, a South African variant, a Brazilian variant, and a few more. 

In order to remove the linkage with specific countries, which was triggering a lot of name-calling and blame, the WHO chose to name them after the Greek letters. Accordingly, the variant that used to be "Indian' got the name Delta, while the UK one was called Alpha. There are currently five Variants of Concern - Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron. A few variants have seen their classifications withdrawn because they are no longer in circulation and pose considerably less risk. 

How many letters of the Greek alphabet are you aware of? Tell us quickly down below in the comment section! 

Now let's talk about how Contagious the Omicron Variant is: 

Since it was first identified in late November, the Omicron Variant has been found in 77 countries and is quickly leading to new infections. For example, Britain has seen a rapid uptick in Covid-19 cases from the Omicron Variant, and officials estimate that around 2,00,000 are being infected every day. And in Denmark Omicron cases are doubling about every two days. 

Although delta remains the dominant variant in the United States the New York Times reports omicron may soon overtake it. Omicron now takes up 2.9% of all Covid-19 cases nationwide, up from 0.4% earlier in December. And some areas of the country, such as New York and New Jersey, are seeing much higher omicron case rates. 

According to early research, the reason behind omicron's rapid spread worldwide maybe its high transmissibility, which is likely even greater than delta's. In a pre-print study, researchers found that omicron's spike protein was more effective at entering human cells than Delta's spike protein or that of the original coronavirus. This finding suggests that omicron can infect cells more quickly and easily. Strikingly, this variant was found to be 4-fold more infectious than the original coronavirus and 02-fold more infectious than Delta. 

Another preliminary study from researchers at the University of Hong Kong found that omicron was able to replicate 70 times faster in human respiratory tissue than delta, which may help the variant spread more rapidly between people. There were also higher levels of the omicron variant in respiratory tissue 48 hours after infection than the delta variant. The researchers also found that omicron replicated around 10 times slower in the lungs compared to the original version of the coronavirus suggesting that it may lead to less severe illness overall even if it spreads quickly. Feel like you're missing out make sure you join millions of readers by hitting that subscribe button and stay up to date on all our great Healthy Mind - Think Big content 

Moving on let's talk about the severity of this variant: there is growing evidence that the omicron variant may be less likely to cause severe disease and hospitalization compared to the Delta variant. Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of Covid-19 hospitalization compared with Delta, suggests one study, released online a couple of days ago as a working paper by researchers at the University of Edinburg in the United Kingdom. That research was based out of Scotland. Another paper suggests that people with omicron infections have had 80% lower odds of being admitted to the hospital compared with Delta infections. But once a patient was hospitalized, there was no difference in the risk of severe disease, according to that research based out of South Africa. Both studies include preliminary data and have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The study out of Scotland included data on 23,840 Omicron cases and 1,26,511 Delta cases, from November 1st to December 19th.

The researchers from the University of Edinburg took a close look at the health outcomes among those Omicron infections compared with Delta infections. There were 15 hospital admissions among those with Omicron infections and 856 hospital admissions among Delta. Although small in number, the study is good news. The two-thirds reduction in hospitalization of double-vaccinated young people compared to Delta indicates that Omicron will be milder for more people. 

The study is rigorous but it is early, so it might change a bit with more data and more studies in the weeks ahead. Separate data out of the United Kingdom has shown a "moderate" reduction in hospitalization risk from the Omicron variant in England relative to Delta infections. A study based on data from all PCR confirmed SARS-CoV-2 cases in England between December 1st and December 14th was conducted by the who collaborating center for infectious disease modeling, the MRC center for global infectious disease analysis, Jameel Institute and Imperial college london. The study estimates the risk of being hospitalized for a day or longer due to the Omicron variant to be 40% to 45% lower than for the Delta variant. They found evidence of a reduction in the risk of hospitalization for Omicron relative to Delta infections, averaging over all cases in the study period. 

These reductions must be balanced against the larger risk of infection with Omicron, due to the reduction in protection provided by both vaccination and natural infection. At a population level, large numbers of infections could still lead to large numbers of hospitalizations. 

How effective are current vaccines against Omicron? A study from the Lmperial College London Covid-19 response team found a significantly increased risk of developing a symptomatic Omicron case compared to Delta for those who were two or more weeks past their second vaccination dose and two or more weeks past their booster dose for AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines. Depending on the estimates used for vaccine effectiveness against a symptomatic infection from the Delta variant, this translates into vaccine effectiveness estimates against symptomatic omicron infection of between 0% and 20% after two doses and between 55% to 80% after a booster dose. 

This study provides further evidence of the very substantial extent to which Omicron can evade prior immunity given by both infection or vaccination. While covid vaccinations may be all the rage these days, there are other vaccinations which are equally important for your good health as well. 

Finally can Omicron be detected by the covid testing methods currently available? 

RT-PCR tests can only confirm infections and are not designed to determine the variant causing the infection. To determine that, a genome sequencing study needs to be done. However, not all infected samples undergo genome sequencing as it is a slow, complicated, and expensive process. Only a small subset of positive samples about 2-5% is sent for gene analysis. RT-PCR tests look for specific identifiers in the genetic material, not the entire gene sequence of the virus in humans. Usually, the test looks for two or more identifiers to increase the probability of finding a match. If one identifier has mutated the other can still return a positive result. Many RT-PCR tests look for an identifier in the viruses spike protein, the protruded area that enables its entry into the human body. If the spike protein mutates, as it has with the Omicron variant, then it is possible that such RT-PCR tests looking for identifiers in this region would not recognize the mutation as an identifier and would return a negative result

Since RT-PCR tests look for more than one identifier, if it finds the identifier in another region, the person has the infection. But not being able to identify the spike protein, could indicate infection caused by the Omicron variant. However Omicron is not the only variant to have mutations in the spike protein. A few others, especially the Alpha variant also have mutations in the region and could show similar behavior in RT-PCR tests.  Nonetheless, such a result can screen the Omicron variant, especially since the Alpha variant has significantly gone down. Such diagnostic screening can be vital in identifying and isolating potential Omicron variant infections. Since the Omicron variant is spreading at an alarming rate, now is the best time to be on top of your immunity. This will make sure that your body is able to defend itself against Covid-19. 

And you can help by eating the right foods learn more about the best immunity boosting foods by reading 22 Healthy Habits to Make Your Immune System To The Next Level or 16 Foods To Boost Your Immune System During Covid-19 so go ahead and read one or both posts if you want to boost your immunity. 

Do you know anyone who's contracted the omicron variant of covid19? Let us know in the comments below!

The information I provided in this blog is for educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional medical advice. You should never use content in my writing as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or another qualified clinician. Please consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if indicated for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. I am not liable for risks or issues associated with using or acting upon the information in this blog. Thank you.