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Variant of Concern - Omicron

Health & Gender Policy Brief #125 | By: S Bhimji | December 2, 2021

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Photo taken from: Financial Times

Policy Summary

Over the weekend, the world learned about another heavily mutated coronavirus variant named Omicron. First detected in South Africa, Omicron has now been detected in many nations. While not much is known about it, experts suggest that it could be more infectious than the delta variant.

Named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, Omicron produces the same symptoms as the original coronavirus. The few cases first detected in South Africa were associated with a mild infection but the concern is that this particular variant may be more infectious and more likely to cause death or severe illness in vulnerable populations.

Many nations have already restricted flights from South Africa to prevent the spread of this variant. But whether Omicron will be as serious as the delta variant won’t be known for a few more weeks. 

Policy Analysis

There is not much known about Omicron but it has generated global hysteria. Besides South Africa, Omicron has been reported in the Netherlands, Portugal, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Israel, Belgium, and Botswana- in each of these nations the virus has been linked to international travelers. 

While sporadic cases of Omicron have been reported in Europe, the first case of this variant was just confirmed in California several days ago. That individual had just returned from a South African trip and tested positive on Nov 29. President Joe Biden will announce a strategic plan to combat Omicron on Dec 2, but he has indicated that there is no reason for any panic, as yet.

So far it is not known if Omicron can induce more severe disease compared to other variants but preliminary data from South Africa suggest that the rates of hospitalization have increased. Even though little is known about omicron, experts warn that this variant should be taken seriously. Many hospitals in the USA are still struggling with Covid infections in the unvaccinated and there is little room for complacency.

Luckily no deaths have been reported from omicron 

What makes omicron unique from other variants?

Preliminary studies reveal that Omicron has nearly 30 mutations of which 26 are unique to this variant. In comparison, the delta variant has 7 and the gamma variant has 8. Scientists reveal that they are not worried about the number of mutations but are more concerned with the fact that not much is known about what these defects may cause in humans. 

Photo taken from: New York Post

A few similar mutations in other variants have been known to increase susceptibility to infection, enhance transmissibility, and in other cases help the organism evade immunity. Fortunately, the majority of mutations are congregated at locations that are also targeted by the Covid vaccines.

Whether Omicron is a mild winter malady or a deadly infection remains to be seen; President Biden and his team of public health officials have increased their pleas for all Americans to get vaccinated or those who have been vaccinated to get the booster shots- to maximize the protection against the virus. Plus Americans should continue to wear masks, regardless of the vaccination status.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

SARS-CoV-2 Variant Classifications and Definitions. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/variant-info.html

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