The world was just taking a breath of relief after severe lockdowns and many deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic when Omicron – yet another variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified in Botswana and South Africa. Within days, Omicron cases started surfacing in other countries around the world, such as the UK, France, Italy, and Australia. Omicron is also the predominant strain plaguing the United States.
It is natural for viruses to mutate which is why scientists have been hard at work to find a cure for both COVID-19 and Omicron. Even so, it appears that Omicron mutated even sooner than expected due to the rapid development of the vaccine. It was discovered that there are multiple strains of Omicron themselves. As with all evolutions, the Omicron mutated constantly to adapt to its environment. Till now, more than 30 mutations are being recognized in Omicron.
Let us see some of the major COVID-19 variants that are causing concern across the world and how Omicron variants differ from others.
It was one of the first variants that caught the attention of medical specialists and media across the world. The CDC classified it as a variant of concern and it became the predominant variant in the U.S by mid-April 2020. According to a CDC study released in June 2020, 66% of Corona cases in the US were of Alpha variant.
Alpha or B.1.1.7 first appeared in Great Britain in November 2020 and by December, its infection spread around the world. It was believed that the B.1.1.7 lineage of coronavirus variants was 30 to 50% more contagious than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2. It was also believed that the Alpha variant of the coronavirus was deadlier than the original COVID 19 virus and people infected with this variant are more likely to be hospitalized.
COVID-19 vaccines like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson have been found effective in preventing severe symptoms in patients with Alpha cases.
The Beta variant or B.1.351 lineage of coronaviruses was identified in South Africa towards the end of 2020. According to the CDC, it was 50% more contagious than the original coronavirus strain and it is more likely to lead to hospitalization and death. It became a concern for experts about mutations of the virus and their potential to evade antibodies.
However, Beta did not spread much in the US and its cases around the world also decreased as the world started focusing more on the Delta and Omicron variants. The worrisome fact about Beta mutation is that South Africa reported that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine failed to prevent the mild and moderate symptoms of this strain. Hence, SA stopped this vaccine early in 2021. This vaccine is not available in the U.S.
Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines also do not offer adequate protection against this variant.
Delta variant or B.1.617.2 lineage of coronaviruses became the household name before Omicron. It was first identified in India in late 2020 and soon became the predominant version across the world until mid-December 2021 when Omicron took over.
Delta variant still exists and is spreading more rapidly than other variants. It has more than a dozen mutations and is affecting people who are already vaccinated. Delta variant is about twice as infectious as previous variants and its infections spread up to 80 to 90% times more than the Alpha variant.
In June 2021, when the U.S. was seeing a steady decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and corona-related hospitalizations, the arrival of the Delta variant quickly reversed the trend. By fall 2021, many vaccinated people also fell to the Delta variant, and hence, experts advised people to get their booster doses. But it was also observed that hospitalizations are less in vaccinated people than those who are not vaccinated.
While no vaccine is 100% effective against the Delta variant, all three vaccines available in the U.S. are believed to be effective against severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. Vaccinated people can suffer from breakthrough infections of this variant and may become the carrier of the virus and spread the infection to others.
Delta variant prompted experts to recommend ‘layered prevention strategies’ that include:
- Getting fully vaccinated and booster shots,
- Maintaining social distancing, especially indoors, where chances of transmission are much higher,
- Wearing masks, and
- Washing hands frequently.
Delta variant has seen many mutations till now – the most popular being Delta AY.4.2, being referred to as Delta Plus by media. This variant also has two mutations that spike protein called AY145H and A222V. It is 10 to 20% more contagious than the original Delta variant. Great Britain is seeing a steady rise in Delta Plus cases but its cases are not rising in the U.S. It is also not likely to cause hospitalization and death. Vaccines are found to be effective against AY.4.2 mutation of the Delta variant.
Omicron was first identified in Botswana and South Africa in late November 2021 and soon became the cause of concern. Cases of Omicron or B.1.1.529 lineage of coronaviruses quickly spread to the U.S. and other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark.
The travel bans were imposed quickly to prevent it from spreading and yet, by mid-December, 2021, it became more common than the Delta variant in the U.S. Omicron is mutating quite rapidly and till now, 50 mutations have already been reported. Experts are still studying how these mutations might work together.
Omicron is much more transmissible than Delta. More than 30 mutations of Omicron are on the spike protein of the virus (that attaches to human cells). And experts are considering it as the key to its enhanced transmissibility. It is also believed to have the ability to invade immune responses, especially in people who have been infected earlier and not yet vaccinated.
South Africa reported that from 300 Omicron cases a day, the infection spread to 3,000 Omicron cases a day within two weeks!
The severity of Omicron cases is not clear yet. Most cases were found in young people but symptoms were mild. The effectiveness of the vaccines against Omicron is not clear yet. In the U.S., some of the infected patients were fully vaccinated and some had their booster shots too. Experts still think that vaccines and booster shots can prevent severe symptoms in patients and help them avoid hospitalizations or death.
Symptoms of Omicron Virus and Precautions We Should Take
Transtutors experts are helping many research scholars in their work on Omicron. They say that the symptoms of Omicron infections include but are not limited to:
- General weakness and tiredness
- Loss of smell and taste (one of the less common symptoms)
- Low-grade fever
- Pain and itchiness in the throat
- Severe and debilitating body pain
- Skin rashes
Some studies show that Omicron strikes the immune system. Hence, it can cause reinfection in people who have already recovered from the COVID-19 infection. It’s less deadly and more contagious than the Delta variant but the complete picture is still not clear.
Hence, we should take all precautions and follow all guidelines announced by the government. These include:
- Avoid crowded places.
- Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose repeatedly.
- Get fully vaccinated and get booster shots as required.
- Maintain proper hygiene.
- Maintain social distancing.
- Sanitize everything properly.
- Wear mask properly (covering your mouth and nose, and not sliding it down repeatedly. N-95 masks are said to be the safest.)
- Working areas should be properly ventilated.
Transtutors wishes you a safe and healthy year ahead!