As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt life and health, the world has had to deal with new infections and a new variant of the disease. The first report of the omicron variant, also referred to as B.1.1.529, was in November 2021 in South Africa. The variant has many mutations, with evidence pointing to an increased risk of reinfection.
The likelihood of a virus’ mutation increases when it is circulating rapidly and causing a large number of infections. The opportunities for a virus to spread also present more options to change. The implication is that upholding measures to avoid further spreading the disease will reduce the mutation levels. Other variants recorded in the recent past include delta and IHU, with over 40 mutations.
Existing knowledge on the omicron variant
After reporting the first case of the variant in November, the number of infections increased across South Africa. As of January 2022, 128 countries reported the spread of the variant. The high transmission rate of the omicron variant means that it becomes dominant in a matter of weeks, and this poses a threat to the medical systems of different countries. The challenge is incredibly profound in a period where governments are seeking to reopen their economies. Further, large sections of the world’s population remain unvaccinated, which affects the efforts geared towards controlling the spread of the disease. Much as this is the case, there has been no association of the variant with an increasing number of deaths.
Evidence from the existing cases indicates that the variant has differing effects on the human body. A statement by a World Health Organization official in January 2022 noted that the omicron coronavirus affects the upper respiratory tract, thereby causing milder symptoms than other variants (Farge & Roy, 2022). Further, evidence points to decoupling as some countries are reporting high prevalence rates but low death rates. Despite this, there has been a note of caution issued, and this is because South Africa is an outlier due to its large younger population. There is a need for more evidence to confirm the nature and transmissibility of the variant and its impact on humans.
The severity of the disease
Although it is not very clear, the omicron variant has been linked to milder symptoms. Following its identification in South Africa, there has been an increase in hospitalizations. While hospitalization may indicate severe symptoms, it is also likely to increase the number of people infected with the coronavirus. Even with the likelihood that the disease has milder symptoms, COVID is still expected to cause severe illness and even death.
Tests and vaccines
An emerging question is whether the current tests can detect the variant. According to the WHO (2021), the recent PCR tests continue to see infection, including the omicron variant. Studies on the efficacy of other tests, such as rapid antigen tests, continue.
Vaccines remain the primary approach for reducing the severity of coronavirus and the risk of death. The world health organization is still working with its partners to determine the potential impact of the variant on the existing countermeasures. As such, vaccination is the only sure way of avoiding the severity of the disease and likely death. The previous infection offers less protection against omicron as cOmicron to other variants such as delta. In managing patients with severe illness, IL6 Receptor Blockers and Corticosteroids are still effective in managing patients with severe symptoms of the coronavirus—the WHO is still assessing the effectiveness of other treatment approaches in dealing with the new variant.
With the WHO offering guidelines on how to deal with coronavirus, it has several recommendations for countries and individuals. An important recommendation is a need for governments to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts, as this will help better understand the COVID variants. After collecting the data, countries should submit it to publicly available databases. The essence is to provide access to this information by professionals and researchers handling the coronavirus cases. There is also a need to report the initial cases and clusters associated with the variant to the WHO. Also critical is the need to perform laboratory assessments and field investigations directed towards improving the understanding of the impacts of the COVID disease. Addressing the inequities in the access to vaccines is pertinent in lowering the transmission rate of the coronavirus.
For individuals, the recommendation revolves around taking measures that will help reduce the risks of COVID-19. Already existing cautionary measures that include wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, improving ventilation, washing hands, and getting vaccinated are still effective in minimizing the risk of the disease.
Research on the omicron variant is still ongoing, which means that more information will be available in the future. The variant indicates that continued transmission will continue posing a problem in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Taking the necessary measures to avoid contracting and transmitting the disease is needed in curbing further variations and the associated risks.
Farge, M., & Roy, M. (2022). WHO sees more evidence that Omicron causOmicroner symptoms. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/who-sees-more-evidence-that-omicron-affects-upper-respiratory-tract-2022-01-04/
World Health Organization. (2021). Update on Omicron. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-11-2021-update-on-omicron