The Omicron variant

The news about South African scientists detecting a new variant of the covid-19 virus that has been labeled the ‘Omicron’ has been worrying to say the least. What has caused scientists and the WHO to express concern is the large number of mutations that it has, over 50 overall and more than 30 on the spike proteins that the virus uses to invade out bodies’ cells. That makes it hard to predict what it can and will do without further study. But it is far too early to press the panic button.

There have been many examples of variants that have seemed scary on paper, but came to nothing. The Beta variant was at the top of people’s concerns at the beginning of the year because it was the best at escaping the immune system. But in the end it was the faster-spreading Delta that took over the world.

Prof Ravi Gupta, from the University of Cambridge, said: “Beta was all immune escape and nothing else, Delta had infectivity and modest immune escape, this potentially has both to high degrees.”

All this means is that the variant needs to be studied more closely and jumping to worst-case scenarios is not helpful. There are four things that scientists will be studying:

1. How does the transmissibility of Omicron compare with the existing dominant variants like Delta?
2. Does Omicron cause more serious symptoms?
3. How effective are the existing vaccines and treatments against it?
4. If existing vaccines are seen as ineffective, how quickly can new vaccines be created to deal with it?

As to the first, the fact that it seems to have spread fairly widely in the region in which it was first identified suggest that its transmissibility rate is fairly high. As to the second, the cases reported so far have been seen as mild. As to the third, that will take some laboratory research to determine. And as to the fourth, apparently the new mRNA techniques are such that they can be adapted to cope with new mutations but of course it will take time to mass produce and distribute the new vaccines if that becomes necessary.

Because the new mutation was first identified in Botswana and made known by South African scientists, some countries have clamped down on travel from those two countries and neighboring ones like Namibia and Eswatini. But when one deals with exponentially growing systems, these kinds of travel restrictions at best only buy you a very little time, days at most. The best precautions are still the same ones we have been told over and over again: get vaccinated, avoid crowds and unvaccinated people, wash one’s hands frequently, and wear masks.

Once a variant is detected in any area, it usually means that it has been around for a while and will likely spread everywhere. The Omicron variant has already been found in many parts of the world and there is a good possibility that it is already in the US. Countries should be encouraged to report new variants as quickly as possible and shutting down travel from countries that first report them gives the impression that they are being penalized for revealing the existence of the variants, rather than being commended for sharing the information. South African scientists are working hard to learn more about the new variant.

“We’re flying at warp speed,” says Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, whose lab is gauging the variant’s potential to dodge immunity from vaccines and previous infections.

“There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,” Richard Lessells, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, said at a press briefing organized by South Africa’s health department on 25 November. “The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.”

Unlike scientists who try to provide a balanced and measured perspective, there are people who for whatever malevolent reason, seem to delight in spreading panic and they waste no time in using any new development to spread false information. Just two days after the first reports of the new variant emerged, I got a text message forwarded via WhatsApp from a friend that had a “Oh my God! We’re all going to die from the Omicron variant!” tone. It claimed to be from “a doctors’ group from RSA (Republic of South Africa)”. I could immediately tell that it was unreliable. The panicked tone, the large number of exclamation points, and the lack of identification of the ‘doctors’ group’, were all dead giveaways. It took me just a minute to find a debunking of the message and I sent it back to the sender along with a gentle suggestion that she check things out first before mass forwarding.

It frustrates me that despite all the publicity given to the false information that exists on social media, people still forward this stuff without checking. The people who want to spread panic take advantage of the fear and gullibility of people and of their good nature and desire to alert people of dangers, and social media is their mode of choice. They know that getting something from someone you know tends to give it greater credibility and unless one adopts judicious skepticism, one can easily become part of a disinformation campaign.


  1. Mark Dowd says

    That’s pretty much the shortcut for a lot of those “authoritative” things. If they don’t name names, it’s bullshit.

    Works for phone scams too.

    “We’re calling about student loan forgiveness. Please call back…”
    No business name. Hang up.
    “We’re calling about your Consumers Energy natural gas supply charges…”
    Calling about Consumers, but not from Consumers. Ignored.
    “We’re calling because your car’s factory warranty…”
    OH FUCK OFF! This shit still exists?!?

  2. johnson catman says

    re Mark Dowd @1: I generally do not answer calls where I don’t recognize the number. However, when I am expecting a call where I do not know the number they will be calling from, I will sometimes take a call. Last week, I answered a call in such a situation, and it began “We have been trying to get in touch with you about your car’s warranty.” I immediately hung up. These type of calls are annoying to say the least.

  3. says

    What I and others don’t understand and have asked is why this is name Omicron? Is there a reason they skipped Xi (Ξ) rather than using the whole alphabet consecutively?

  4. flex says

    @4, Intransitive,

    Yes. There was an Al-Jazeera article I read which explained why the next two letters were skipped.

    First, because Nu was too easily confused with “new”. A Nu variant of Covid is distinct from a new variant of Covid.
    Second, because Xi is a common family name. So a Xi variant sounds like it’s named for a family.

    I thought that was interesting.

  5. blf says

    @3, the Grauniad, Omicron Covid variant ‘present in Europe at least 10 days ago’.

    @4, as the BBC put it (New variant classed ‘of concern’ and named Omicron):

    The variant has an astounding collection of mutations which are thought to increase its ability to spread and bypass some, but not all, of the protection from vaccines.

    However, we still don’t have the clear real-world data.

    We don’t know for sure that it spreads faster, makes vaccines or drugs less effective or whether it leads to more severe disease.

    The WHO have also given it a name and ended days of speculation that we would end up in the slightly ridiculous position of calling the new variant the “Nu variant”.

    There have even been arguments about the correct pronunciation of the Greek letter Nu (it’s technically a “Nee”).

  6. garnetstar says

    Yes, Omicron is everywhere, and anywhere it isn’t, it’ll be there soon.

    But, this panic is not well founded: I don’t recall the entire world screaming when Delta was growing. Is this because Delta proved quite devastating, and now we expect that from Omicron?

    The fact is, that new variants are of less concern than they would have been, because of mRNA vaccines. It is much quicker to make mRNA from this new spike protein (or any other than comes down the pike) and toss it into the vaccines, than it would be to raise a traditional vaccine.

    If Omicron proves to be what the preliminary reports suggest, 1) extremely transmissable, more than Delta, and 2) doesn’t cause very acute symptoms in vaxxed people (as yet), this could be the permanent one, the one that stays as COVID goes to an endemic illness. The gold medal, for a virus, goes to the variant that is maximally transmissable and not too fatal to its host. Or, at least, maximally transmissable: those variants always win.

  7. garnetstar says

    Also, I saw a photo of Delta’s spike and its active site, and Omicron’s. Just using the naive view that the more different in shape they are, the less well Delta antibodies will work, they do look kind of different to my uneducated eye. But, similar enough that Delta antibodies will probably do some good.

    So, my booster appointment is next week, and I’m going to go.

    But even if not, what is there to do when any new variant emerges? Same old, same old: wash hands, distance, mask, and vaccinate. Nothing to see here.

  8. prl says

    the correct pronunciation of the Greek letter Nu (it’s technically a “Nee”).

    Well, it certainly is if you’re speaking Greek. But then you also be pronouncing the name of beta (β) as “vita”. Wikipedia gives the English pronunciation for nu (ν) as /njuː/ (IPA). A lot of Greek letter names are differ between English and Greek. Just as the names for Latin alphabet letters vary between the languages that use them.

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