Since last Friday there is a new variant of the coronavirus in the category of “concern” worldwide. It’s called Omicron, according to the Greek letter designation of the World Health Organization experts. Before the alert, public scientific laboratories and companies that developed the vaccines already They are doing studies to verify if the inoculants maintain their high protection when an already immunized person is exposed to the Omicron variant.
Since South Africa detected the Omicron variant in COVID-19 patients last week and transparently shared the data with WHO, genomic surveillance laboratories have been looking for it in other countries. Until today , More than 160 cases have already been detected in Botswana, the Netherlands, Australia, the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada, Hong Kong, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Japan and Switzerland.
“The probability of a further potential spread of Omicron globally is high,” the WHO warned in a technical note. To date, no deaths related to the Omicron variant have been reported.added. At the moment, it is not known where exactly the Omicron variant emerged.
But it is known that has an unusual combination of mutations that experts fear could make it more transmissible and allow it to bypass immune protection, including that generated by vaccines that have already been developed and applied.
54.2% of humanity have already received at least one dose of vaccines. Although uneven access has been recorded: in low-income countries, only 5.8% of the population received a dose.
One of the questions of the moment is whether the current vaccines will maintain their high protection against the Omicron variant. The who reported that it is working “with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical in reducing serious illness and mortality, including against the dominant virus in circulation, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against serious illness and death. “
For experts like Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, in the United States, you have to be vigilant and probably In a few weeks, more will be known about the rate of transmissibility of the variant and if a change in vaccines is necessary..
Studies on vaccines are already being carried out in different public laboratories and in companies that developed vaccines. The developers of two of the COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Modern, they are preparing to reformulate their vaccines if necessary.
It is estimated that results won’t be ready for at least two weeks. But the mutations in Omicron suggest that vaccines are more likely to be less effective, to an unknown degree, than they were against any previous variant.
Jim Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and professor of Structural Biology at the Oxford University in the UK, acknowledged today that there are still no answers to these three questions: The first is what is the spread rate of Omicron versus that of the Delta variant of concern. The second question is whether it causes more or less the same disease as Delta and the third is how far it can evade immunity.
“The three questions are crucial. We have a clue to the first question, some initial data suggests that the virus can spread rapidly. However, I caution that this may change. It is too early to know about the second question. Based on scientific studies of various changes in the coronavirus Spike protein and our understanding of the structural biology of neutralization, we would expect this variant to be less susceptible to immunity, either from the vaccine or from a previous infection, ”Naismith said.
“The vaccines we have are safe and effectiveAnd they have greatly reduced serious illness and death, ”Naishmith said. They will continue to be effective up to a point, which is why I urge everyone to wear theirs. In addition, there are new drugs that are going to work and will not be affected by the changes to Omicron. Beyond vaccination, ventilation is an effective measure, as is the use of a chinstrap or mask.
Ómicron has about 50 mutations, including more than 30 in the Spike, that the protein on its surface that vaccines train the body to recognize and attack. Some of those mutations have been seen before. Some of these mutations are believed to have enhanced the Beta variant’s ability to elude vaccines, while others have likely enhanced the extreme contagiousness of Delta.
What’s more, Ómicron also has 26 unique mutations in the Spike protein, compared to 10 for Delta and six for Beta.. Many of them seem to make the variant more difficult for the immune system to recognize.
In the company Modern, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which developed one of the two licensed messenger RNA vaccines against COVID-19, the “alarm” had sounded last Tuesday. The company’s team tracking the variants observed unusual activity in a global database managed by the GISAID Initiative, a nonprofit organization, as scientists around the world began uploading information about a new variant. Moderna’s team found 50 mutations in the new variant, which could make it more transmissible and allow it to bypass the immune responses generated by vaccination and previous infection.
While in the AstraZeneca company, which developed its vaccine in collaboration with the University of Oxford, reported that it is conducting research in Botswana and Swaziland (Eswatini), in Africa. There the Omicron variant has been identified as well and they are doing the studies to get real world data on the performance of the vaccine.
“We are closely monitoring new emerging strains of the Covid-19 virus with variations in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 and we are already testing the efficacy of our vaccine against the new variant, which is spreading rapidly, ”said a spokesman for the Johnson & Johnson company, which also developed a single-dose COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, according to Ancha Baranova, a professor at the School of Systems Biology at George Mason University, Virginia, United States, the Russian vaccine Sputnik V against the coronavirus could offer slightly better protection against Ómicron, as she told the TASS agency .