By James Ochieng

“The new variant Omicron has proven to spread faster than the other COVID-19 variants and is affecting individuals more so the youth and the young population who are not in the vaccination bracket,” said Prof. Walter Jaoko an expert in Medical Microbiology and Tropical Medicine during an African Science Media Center  (AfriSMC) press briefing in Nairobi.

Omicron which is the latest COVID variant which was first detected in South Africa has proven to spread rapidly than the others. As of December it had already spread to 38 countries such as Israel, Hong Kong, France, Nigeria and Ghana and it is expected to spread to more countries and affect a lot of people if nothing is done immediately.

Researchers have found more than 50 mutations, many of which raise possibility that the variant may evade immune responses from previous infection and vaccines which may reduce efficacy of treatments with antibodies and also escape diagnosis.

“The delta variant overtook its predecessors in the world and proved to be more transmissible than the prior variants. Delta caused more severe illness to the unvaccinated than previous variants. However, current studies show that there is no evidence that Omicron is more lethal than the delta variant and in fact, seems it is less lethal. However this is still in the study phase,” Prof. Jaoko said.

Currently Omicron is the dominant form of the virus in South Africa which has caused a sudden, sharp rise in COVID cases in the past one month. It is spreading twice as fast than the delta variant. The variant symptoms include mild illness such as cough, loss of taste and smell.

The infection has mainly affected young people, who are less likely overall to become severely ill from COVID-19. Reports from different hospitals in South Africa show that majority of patients in COVID wards were unvaccinated and the hospitals reported a higher admission of younger patients and children within age groups with lower rates of vaccination or none, as children under 12 are not vaccinated in South Africa. Hospitals have not reported any deaths since the variant was discovered.

On a positive note, the variant is unlikely to affect response to vaccines, because they stimulate both antibodies and cell responses that attack virus-infected cells.

Additionally mutations to spike protein does not weaken cell responses thus, effect on vaccines may be partial or totally not occur. Waning effect may be boosted by booster vaccines for those who are already vaccinated and are in areas which are highly endemic.

“A booster dose of the current vaccine that we have could be one way of addressing it in the event that we find they have a little diminished response,” he said.

Major vaccine manufacturers are studying Omicron and can modify the vaccine to target the variant if it’s necessary. Research is being conducted to determine if it’s causing more severe diseases with symptoms varying from Delta variant.

Studies are being done to determine whether vaccines remain effective against severe diseases and death from all variants. In addition research is also being done to determine whether the omicron variant escapes detection by the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test as the impact is not clear on other tests.

However countries are being encouraged to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating variants. Additionally reporting initial cases or clusters of infection to World Health Organization (WHO) would be helpful in tracking the virus.

The governments can also perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of impact of the variant and not wait for other countries to do so.  In addition they should also address inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines to ensure free vaccinations everywhere to help fight the spread of COVID-19 virus.

“Countries should continue to enhance surveillance and keep on sequencing any new infection that they have so that we can better understand the circulating variant,” Professor Jaoko said.

The public is encouraged to use proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene such as using sanitizers and thoroughly washing hands with soap and water, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, sneezing into the elbow and getting vaccinated.

There is need for more calls by those in administration and in the medical field for people to be vaccinated even if the symptoms of Omicron are not severe compared to Delta.