COVID-19: What is the Omicron variant?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the new Omicron (or B.1.1.529) variant of the coronavirus, reported on November 24 in South Africa, to be “of concern,” stating that the likelihood of further global spread of this variant is “very high” due to its many mutations.  

Although “no Omicron-related deaths have been reported,” WHO fears “serious consequences” in some areas of the world. Despite uncertainties about its transmissibility, preliminary data suggest an “increased risk of reinfection” with this variant.

The Organization warns: “Cases of the new coronavirus are expected in vaccinated people, although in a small and predictable proportion.”

“The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underscores how dangerous and precarious our situation is,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recalling that a “new wave of cases and deaths is sweeping across Europe” where the Delta variant is overwhelmingly prevalent.

What is the difference with the other variants? 

Its genetic profile. While the highly transmissible Delta variant has 9 mutations on the spike protein, which plays an essential role in infection, the Omicron variant has 32 mutations on this protein and about 50 in all.

It is therefore potentially more transmissible and more dangerous due to the new combination of mutations.

Will the tests and vaccines still be effective? 

Probably, but “we don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with greater transmission, more severe disease, increased risk of infections, or increased risk of vaccine evasion,” said Dr. Tedros.

WHO reiterates that vaccination remains essential to reduce severe disease and death, including from the dominant Delta variant, and urges accelerated vaccination of high-priority groups.

PCR tests continue to detect infection, including by Omicron.

What is the status of the research?

Scientists at WHO and other organizations around the world are working urgently to understand the threat posed by this new variant, which is now present in Europe, and to adapt tests, vaccines, and treatments if necessary.

More information about the Omicron variant will be released in the coming weeks.

What are the WHO recommendations? 

WHO recommends that countries adopt a scientific approach based on risk assessment and intensify surveillance and case sequencing to gain a better understanding of circulating variants.

The organization also encourages them to share their genomic sequence data and research on the variant, as well as to report early cases.

“It is critical that countries that are transparent with their data are supported, as this is the only way to ensure that we receive important data in a timely manner,” said WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti.

States should continue to implement public health measures to reduce the overall circulation of COVID-19.

It is imperative that everyone continues to respect sanitary measures, i.e. physical distancing, wearing a mask, ventilating indoor spaces, washing hands, coughing or sneezing into one’s elbow, or avoiding closed and crowded places.

Should countries close their borders? 

As a growing number of countries are imposing flight bans on southern African countries due to concerns about the new Omicron variant, WHO is advising states against imposing travel restrictions related to the new variant that could be considered “an attack on global solidarity.”

“Covid-19 is continuously taking advantage of our differences. We will only get the upper hand on the virus if we work together on solutions,” warned Dr. Matshidiso Moeti.

WHO also emphasizes the importance of addressing inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments around the world.

For the WHO chief, the world cannot put an end to this pandemic if it cannot solve the vaccine crisis.

“More than 80% of the world’s vaccines went to the G20 countries. Developing countries, most of which are in Africa, received only 0.6% of all vaccines,” he said.


More information 

(en) WHO – update on Omicron

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