How Bad is Omicron? What Scientists Know So Far

Towards the end of last year, scientists in South Africa and Botswana alerted officials throughout the world of the Covid-19 variant given the name Omicron. Over the last couple of months since that announcement, researchers across the globe have been rushing to study and understand this newest threat during the pandemic, that has been confirmed in over 20 countries.

It takes many weeks for researchers and scientists to get a full picture of the impact of Omicron and learn about both its transmissibility and severity, in addition to its ability to cause reinfections and evade the vaccinations available.

As research is still ongoing and discoveries are being made gradually, it’s worth considering what we actually know about Omicron so far.

How Quickly Is the Omicron Variant Spreading?

It was the variants rapid spread in South Africa that first worried researchers, as it suggested the same speedy spread could create large numbers of Covid-19 cases in other countries too. On 1st December, the country recorded a total of 8.561 cases, which was a massive increase from the 3,402 reported on 26th November and the several hundred reported daily before that.

As has been the case for the majority of the pandemic, scientists use the R number to measure the pandemic’s growth, that is the average number of newly reported cases. By late November 2021, it was determined by the NICD or National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa that Gauteng had an R number of more than 2. That kind of growth level was observed last during the formative days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even more startling, Gauteng’s R number was lower than 1 during September, at the same time Delta was the most active variant and the cases were actually falling. What does this mean?

That Omicron seems to have the potential at least to spread quickly and infect more people than the Delta variant. After studying the rise in the number of Covid-19 cases and sequencing data, an evolutionary biologist called Tom Wenseleers at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven estimated that Omicron could potentially infect as many as three to six times more people than Delta, during the same period.

Can the Omicron Variant Overcome Immunity from Infection or Vaccines?

One thing that the sudden rise of Omicron suggests is that it has some level of ability to evade immunity. At least one-quarter of the population of South Africa is fully vaccinated and it’s thought that a large fraction of the country’s population was infected with Covid-19 in the earlier days of the pandemic, according to heightened death rates that have been recorded since the pandemic began.

It is believed, within this context, that Omicron’s success throughout South Africa and surrounding nations is due to its ability to infect people who have been infected by the virus from other variants and those who are vaccinated. There has been a definite correlation between the spread of Omicron and the reinfections.

For the rest of the world, how quickly and effectively the Omicron variant spreads will be dependent on a variety of factors including previous infection rates and vaccination rates.

How Much Protection Will Vaccines Provide Against Omicron?

Just because Omicron may be able to avoid neutralizing antibodies, doesn’t mean that the way your immune system responds when triggered by the vaccination and previous infection will provide no protection against that variant. It is believed that even modest levels of neutralizing antibodies could protect against the more serious forms of Covid-19.

Will the Booster Vaccinations Currently Being Offered Enhance Protection Against the Omicron Variant?

Although in places like here in the UK, vaccine boosters are being offered to cope with the different variants, there is still no concrete evidence that they are actually effective.

When you have a third dose, though, it supercharges the level of neutralizing antibodies you have in your body, which means it will provide a protective bulwark against the variant’s ability to get past these antibodies. Studies on the polymutant spike discovered that people who had previously had Covid-19 and recovered months before receiving their booster jabs had antibodies with the capacity to block the mutant spike. Some experts believe that these results indicate that people who have had repeated exposure to the virus’s spike protein, either from the booster dose or infection, are likely to have some neutralizing activity against the variant.

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How Bad is Omicron? What Scientists Know So Far

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