Friday, January 21

Covid-19. Why Omicron is worse than the Delta variant

“A disturbing variant.” The World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that the latest mutation of Covid-19, called Omicron, is cause for concern. The European Union considers the risk “high to very high”, especially as many European countries, including France, are already facing a new wave of contamination. Cases were detected in Germany and the UK on Saturday. But what are we talking about exactly?

What is Omicron?

Its scientific name is Sars-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.529. It is a new variant, which therefore joins the already existing list, which includes Delta (discovered in India), Alpha (United Kingdom), Beta (South Africa) and Gamma (Brazil).

Where is he from ?

Omicron was first detected on November 24 in South Africa. But the sample concerned was collected on November 9. Until now, the Delta variant has dominated the country. However, a rapid increase in Covid cases could not be explained by the only contaminations in the Delta.

Omicron has since been detected in Malawi, Israel (one person from Malawi), Botswana, Hong Kong, Belgium, UK and Germany. Southern Africa is affected. Travel restrictions have been imposed on travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Can it be detected easily?

A priori, the majority of PCR tests react to Omicron. So if you have it, you will be “positive”. These are additional blood tests that will establish which variant is responsible for the contamination.

Why is he so worrying?

“This variant contains a large number of mutations,” warns the WHO. There are 50 of them, 32 of which are in the spike protein (the key that allows the coronavirus to enter our cells). This not only can allow Covid to be transmitted faster, but also make the immune response of our body difficult or impossible, even when vaccinated.

It also presents a high risk of reinfection. Above all, this variant spreads quickly, very quickly. In South Africa, contaminations have increased exponentially in record time. For many epidemiologists, Omicron “has been the worst variant” since the start of the pandemic.

What should not be underestimated is that it is emerging at a time when many countries, including France, are experiencing a new epidemic wave. Hospitals are already overcrowded. If Omicron gains the upper hand, the risks are enormous.

Are vaccines effective against Omicron?

This is where the problem lies. We do not yet know if they are effective, little or not at all. For the European Medicines Agency (EMA), it is “premature” to plan an adaptation of the vaccines to the variant until we understand the transmissibility and virulence of Omicron.

If the laboratories can not guarantee the effectiveness of current vaccines against this variant, they are already warning that they will be able to make changes “within three months”. The German laboratory BioNTech, allied with Pfizer, expects “at the latest in two weeks” the first results of studies. He undertakes to adjust the vaccine in less than six weeks and to deliver the first doses in 100 days if the variant proves resistant. Moderna for its part announced its intention to “rapidly develop a vaccine candidate” for a dose specific to Omicron.

The spread of the variant confirms a global inequality with regard to vaccines: the most affected countries are among those where vaccinations are at their lowest, mainly due to lack of access to doses. In South Africa, only 23.8% of the population is fully vaccinated.

In summary, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) says: “There is considerable uncertainty regarding contagiousness, vaccine efficacy, risk of re-infection and other characteristics of the Omicron variant”.

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