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SITUATION UPDATE 3 December, 2021 Back

Situation Update - COVID-19 Omicron variant

Dr Juliane Kause

Covid-19

Summary

  • World Health Organisation (WHO) designates COVID-19 variant (Omicron) a variant of concern
  • Important to note that COVID-19 is a viral illness and that viruses do naturally mutate
  • Not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants
  • Also not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants
  • Studies are underway to better understand many aspects of Omicron
  • Current advice is to apply common sense approach, follow national guidelines, and maintain sensible precautions

Situation

On 26 November 2021,the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, named Omicron, on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution. This decision was based on the evidence presented to the advisory group that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.

Analysis

Speculation in the media about possible implications of the new variant is understandably causing widespread concern. Much of the concern is based on reports of increases in the number of mutations and subsequent links to a potential increase in transmission rates and seriousness of the variant. It’s important to note here that most Omicron coverage currently circulating in the media is speculation. It’s still too early for sufficient scientific data to have been collated and analysed.

It’s also important to note that COVID-19 is a viral illness and that viruses do naturally mutate. Within the first three months of the pandemic, more than 35,000 mutations were documented, and future mutations will continue.

To illustrate the point, the following chart shows COVID-19 mutations between December 2019 and April 2020.

covid-mutation

To clarify, some medical experts are using the word “variant” instead of “mutation”, but either word describes the same thing. In fact, the definition of mutation is “the changing of the structure of a gene, resulting in a variant form that may be transmitted to subsequent generations, caused by the alteration of single base units in DNA, or the deletion, insertion, or rearrangement of larger sections of genes or chromosomes”.

Impact

It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g. more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.

It is also not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants. Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.

There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different to those from other variants. What we do know, from interviews with South African doctors, is that symptoms are appearing to be mild for many. Obviously, the short- and long-term effects of Omicron on individuals who may already have a higher susceptibility to COVID-19, remains to be seen.

Researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available.

It is expected that understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant may realistically take anything from several days up to another three weeks, as factual scientific data is collated and analysed.

Advice

All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can have serious implications, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always to be advised.

The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of any variant of the COVID-19 virus is to follow national guidelines as appropriate - wearing a well-fitting mask in designated locations; opening windows to improve ventilation; avoiding poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keeping hands clean; coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow or tissue; and ensuring that vaccinations are taken up whenever possible.

We also advise individuals to apply common sense and stay at home should they experience symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection – COVID-19 or otherwise. Due to social distancing measures over the past 18 months, human immune systems are out of practice in dealing with common infections and therefore even something such as a so-called “harmless cold” can make individuals feel quite unwell and cause the same ripple effect as COVID-19 – requiring sick leave and having to change plans etc.

The Anvil medical team are always here to provide additional support.


References: WHO Update on Omicron - https://www.who.int/news/item/28-11-2021-update-on-omicron