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Omicron Symptoms, Cases and Vaccination Avoidance: What We Know Now

Laboratory assistants of the National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology “Gamaleya” in Russia.

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It has been two weeks since South Africa notified the World Health Organization of the omicron Covid variant, and it is now spreading around the world.

Over the past two weeks, experts have been trying to get more information about the new highly mutated variant, as well as what symptoms and diseases it can cause, and whether it undermines existing vaccines.

More and more information about the spread is emerging day by day, as well as anecdotal evidence and preliminary figures, allowing us to compile a more complete picture of the risk profile.

Here’s what we know so far:

Cases

As soon as the World Health Organization called the omicron an “option of concern” on November 26 – just two days after South Africa reported it to the UN agency – the hunt for virus infections elsewhere began amid fears that mutations associated with an omicron can make it more transferable.

The US, UK and EU, among others, have responded to the omicron designation by temporarily suspending flights from South African countries or imposing strict quarantines on anyone arriving from the region.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the omicron is already spreading around the world, and there have been reports of public transmission of the virus over the past two weeks. this signals that the omicron variant may have circulated more widely and longer than originally thought.

The US Centers for Disease Control said on Tuesday that the new variant has now been found in 50 countries and 19 US states.

The first known example of an omicron is dated November 9th. and was found in South Africa. The WHO said that the infection in the country has risen sharply, which coincided with the discovery of variant B.1.1.529, and this phenomenon is now being observed everywhere.

Genview Diagnosis medical assistants Crystal Leyva (left) and Keithia Perez perform Covid-19 tests for laboratory technicians at the Foxconn Assembly on August 13, 2021 in Houston, Texas.

Brandon Bell | Getty Images News | Getty Images

In the UK, for example, an estimated 1,000 people a day are infected with this variant, and experts say it is a matter of weeks, not months, before it usurps the delta variant, which is globally dominant.

Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, an influential epidemiologist among a cohort of experts advising the British government on Covid, told The Times on Tuesday that early data show that omicron cases are doubling every “three days or less.” Needless to say, government officials are worried and gearing up for a potential spike in omicron infections as we enter winter.

Symptoms

Hospitalizations

Given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the Covid omicron variant, experts are keeping a close eye on actual data coming from South Africa, given that it was one of the first countries to discover this variant.

In parts of South Africa, hospitalizations associated with the omicron variant have increased. A report from the South African Medical Research Council published on Saturday detailing the experiences of several hospitals in Gauteng province (where the omicron was first discovered) suggests that the strain causes milder disease, with fewer patients requiring oxygen or intensive care than previous ones. waves.

In fact, the report notesMost of the patients in the Covid wards that were monitored were “accidental Covid hospitalizations” admitted to the hospital for another medical or surgical reason.

Most patients in Covid wards were not vaccinated and hospitals reported higher numbers of hospitalized patients and young children; age groups with lower vaccination rates (or no vaccination since children under 12 are not vaccinated in South Africa). Hospitals reported no deaths in pediatric wards during the two weeks (November 14-29) they were seen.

Experts in the region are studying the reasons for hospitalization of young people, who are much more prone to less serious Covid infections anyway.

The report also warns that “the clinical profile of hospitalized patients may change significantly over the next two weeks, by which time we will be able to draw conclusions about the severity of the disease with greater accuracy.”

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that preliminary data from South Africa are “encouraging” as they suggest the omicron is not as serious as originally thought, but he cautioned that more data was needed to fully assess the risk involved. by option.

Vaccination evasion

One of the biggest questions for experts, government officials and vaccine manufacturers is whether the omicron option could negate the work the Covid vaccines have done so far in reducing the risk of severe infection, hospitalization, and death. The executives of Moderna and Pfizer, which have created widely used vaccines, said it could take weeks before they have clarity about whether their omicron vaccinations are effective.

The early data are less encouraging: On Tuesday, South African scientists said the omicron significantly reduces the antibody protection offered by the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines. according to a little preliminary research. However, the study found that people who recovered from the virus and received a booster vaccine are more likely to be better protected from severe illness.

Pfizer CEO Albert Burla told The Wall Street Journal during an interview at the newspaper’s Board of Directors summit that he expects the number of confirmed omicron cases to rise from tens to millions over the next few weeks, stating, “We will have a good understanding of, say so. by the end of the year on what exactly this means for clinical manifestations. “

Pfizer could develop a vaccine that targets omicron by March 2022, Burla said, but it’s not clear yet if there is a need for a new vaccine. It will take several weeks to determine if existing vaccines provide adequate protection against this option, he said.

Brooke Knippenberg, 6, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine in Lansdale, PA, USA on December 5, 2021.

Hannah Bayer | Reuters

Diagnostics

Last but not least, omicron testing is a challenge that health officials face when trying to assess the spread of this option as quickly as possible.

When WHO first reported this variant and labeled it as “of concern,” the health agency noted that “this variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are worrisome. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection with this variant. compared to other volatile organic compounds “.

The WHO noted that current PCR tests for Covid continue to detect this variant, thanks in large part to a quirk in the variant’s genetic makeup. “Several laboratories have shown that one widely used PCR test does not detect one of the three target genes (this is called S gene dropout or S gene error), and therefore this test can be used as a marker for this variant, pending confirmation of sequencing … “, – noted in the WHO.

“Using this approach, this variant was detected more quickly than previous outbreaks of infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”

However, there are now reports of a new branch of the omicron that lacks the removal that allows PCR tests to detect it, potentially making it much more difficult to track.

According to the Financial Times, the omicron branch has been identified in at least seven genome sequencing cases in South Africa, Australia and Canada and “no longer possesses this characteristic, which means that full genome sequencing is required to find it. the first identified form of Omicron was BA.1, while the offshoot was designated BA.2, ”the FT reported Tuesday.

– CNBC’s Spencer Kimball provided the coverage for this story.


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