It seems like the Coronavirus still has a few nasty tricks up its sleeve. The latest is what has been called the Omicron variant, a new strain of the virus with multiple mutations that may enable it to spread more quickly than even the Delta variant that caused an unexpected pandemic resurgence. The new variant, formally called B.1.1.529, is actually the 13th version of Covid identified by the World Health Organization, even though omicron is the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet. (For various reasons, the WHO decided to skip Nu (too easily mistaken for ‘new’) and Xi (a common surname in China, including the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping) and proceed directly to Omicron.
13 variants? Most of the mutated forms of the virus—like the ones designated Epsilon, Iota and Lambda—fizzed out without infecting a great many people. The current vaccinations seem to have worked effectively against them, but scientists are unsure whether a new vaccine will be required to protect against Omicron.
Several other countries have now reported Omicron cases. As of now, there have been cases found in 18 different U.S states, and counting. This suggests that the current COVID-19 tests are accurately picking up the new variant, though scientists still have to do a genome sequencing analysis to confirm which variant the patient is infected with.
As far as we know, the Delta variant accounts for nearly all U.S. Coronavirus cases, in part because its underlying structure diverged enough from the Alpha variant that the vaccinations were not able to completely suppress it. Omicron has even more divergent mutations from the original version that the vaccines were designed for, which may or may not mean current vaccines are effective against it. All we know at this point is that the variant emerged in South Africa, and the country has suddenly seen climbing infections and hospitalizations in recent weeks. The people infected don’t seem to be experiencing worse or different symptoms from Delta-infected patients; what’s troubling is how many vaccinated people are catching the disease compared with other strains.
The worst-case scenario is that Omicron is what scientists call a ‘vaccine-escape variant,’ which could mean anything from vaccinated people are more likely to catch this version than the previous 12 (but with mild symptoms) to a more deadly outbreak that is not slowed by vaccinations. The South African experience suggests the former is more likely than the latter, but nobody knows for sure. And if the worst-case scenario manifests, then Pfizer and BioNTech have said that they could produce a tailor-made, Omicron-targeted vaccine in about 100 days. Moderna expects an Omicron-specific booster to be in the testing stage within three months....