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Omicron and other coronavirus variants: what you need to know

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Tired of the pandemic for nearly two years, Americans have been hit hard by the announcement of a new coronavirus variant over the long Thanksgiving weekend.

A subspecies of Omicron, officially known as B.1.1.529, first surfaced in some countries in southern Africa in November. The new variant has sounded alarms around the world as South African public health authorities began to defeat the former reigning variant, Delta. This suggested that Omicron could eventually become widespread. Indeed, Omicron has since been reported on multiple continents, probably due to travel abroad by unknowingly infected people.

After the advent of Omicron was announced, some countries imposed travel bans to contain the virus. However, it is unclear how effective these bans are in slowing the spread. “As we saw before, and as we see now, the travel ban is useless once the horse has already left the barn,” said Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University.

Scientists warn that it is still premature to say whether Omicron proves to be as dangerous as Delta. The other variants that I was interested in at first went up in flames.

So far, here’s what we know and don’t know about the omicron variant:

What is a variant?

The virus variant is mutated in a way that enhances its spread or severity compared to the original strain that emerged in Wuhan, China. “RNA viruses like coronaviruses can mutate when they replicate, especially when they circulate at high speed,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

coronavirus Don’t mutate easily Like influenza viruses, but they mutate over time. The various variants generally cause the same range of symptoms as the original strain of coronavirus. However, mutations may help the virus spread more effectively from person to person, or may have the benefit of sneaking through either natural or vaccine immunity.

What variants were already on the market in the United States?

To date, public health authorities have Point out In addition to the five “mutants of concern”, two other “mutants of interest” that are not yet considered to be as worrisome as the “mutants of concern”. Some of the three official categories are the most worrisome — “Critical Result Variants” —but this type of variant has never appeared.

The World Health Organization decided earlier this year to name the variant after the Greek alphabet in order to simplify the debate and limit the stigma from having a variant named after the country.

The first four “variant of concern” (alpha, beta, gamma, delta) are in circulation in the United States most of the year. However, for most of 2021, the most dominant variant was Delta because of its ability to spread from person to person faster than other variants.For months, Delta Explained Over 99% of US coronavirus infections

As of noon on November 29, there were no confirmed cases of Omicron in the United States, but experts say it’s only a matter of time. It has not been detected yet, but it may already be in the United States.

How did Omicron emerge?

Scientists do not know exactly where Omicron first surfaced, but it is most likely that it occurred in southern Africa where it was first detected.

Experts say that low vaccination rates in that part of the world probably played a role in creating a favorable environment for the mutations that produced Omicron. (maybe pronunciation Either AH-mi-crahn or OH-mi-crahn. )

“Many countries in Africa have a very weak population. About 30% of South Africa is vaccinated,” Smith said. “In a population with little immunity, the virus can be wiped out, and each new infected person has a chance to mutate the virus.”

Why did public health authorities react so urgently to Omicron?

This concern stems from the range and nature of the mutations in the new variant. South African health officials have noted 50 notable mutations, 30 of which are in the pesplomer, an important structure of the virus. New York Magazine reported.. This is more than the previous variants had.

“If we were looking for mutations that affect transmissibility, it has them all,” said an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University. Alice Katsolakis told Science magazine..

Still, the uncertainty at this point is how effectively these mutations work together to create variants that can consistently defeat the delta.

What do we know about the degree of infectivity of Omicron?

Omicron varieties are so new that scientists are just beginning to learn about their characteristics. For this reason, experts call attention, especially when drawing conclusions from anecdotal evidence.

That said, scientists say that if Omicron becomes as easy to transmit as Delta, it won’t be shocked.

“Of course, the answer isn’t clear, but it looks at least as infectious as Delta,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

According to Schaffner, the first and most prevalent areas were in Johannesburg, where young adults and college students, who tend to have lower vaccination rates, live. Vulnerability to infections in these groups may exaggerate how rapidly Omicron appears to be spreading.

What do we know about whether Omicron makes patients sick?

Early evidence is somewhat inconsistent, but there are signs that Omicron’s symptoms may be less severe than in previous variants.Dr. Angelique Kotze, chairman of the South African Medical Association, said that early cases Unvaccinated is mild..

However, it is not yet known if older and unhealthy patients also have mild symptoms. Another caveat is that Omicron may have become so prevalent that it may not be possible to see cases that have progressed to more serious points.

What do we know about whether existing vaccines are effective against Omicron mutants?

Scientists are as effective against Omicron as existing vaccines were against Delta, at least in that they can prevent serious illnesses that require hospitalization. Be cautiously optimistic.

“South African and Israeli scientists who have also detected mutants said They have not seen any serious illness among vaccinated people“Gandhi said.

Gandhi added B cells that provide the immunity produced by the vaccine It has been shown to produce antibodies against mutants, And its T-cell immunity, which protects against severe illness, Sturdy And you should not be at risk of the mutations found in Omicron.Vaccines also produce Polyclonal antibody She said it works for multiple parts of the peaplomer. Finally, booster shots currently administered have been shown to be effective in rapidly boosting immunity.

“Most scientists believe that vaccination needs protection against serious illnesses, and vaccination remains central to control,” Gandhi said.

Conclusion: Get vaccinated if you haven’t been vaccinated, especially if you haven’t been sick yet. Also, if you have already been vaccinated, get a booster.

Related: What you need to know about the omicron variant from Poynter’s Covering COVID-19 newsletter

How long does it take to successfully deal with the threat from Omicron?

Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson All to test the effectiveness of existing vaccines against Omicron The lab is based on the variant analysis protocol developed in early 2021. These results should be available within next week or two weeks.

Some other questions (including whether Omicron makes you sick, and whether it is more contagious) require careful contact tracing and an accurate diagnosis of the infected, so to answer. This will take some time.

To properly answer these questions, Smith said, “I think it will take at least a month to get some preliminary data, and it will take longer to get the big picture. And the actual experience. I don’t even know about the breakthroughs in vaccines up to that point. “

Can you expect a specific new booster to be developed for omicron?

It’s not entirely clear if the Omicron variant will require a re-prescribed booster. The newly prescribed booster was not needed for Delta as researchers determined that the existing prescription was still valid.

That said, vaccine makers will have access to new boosters as soon as they need them.

“If a vaccine escape variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and manufacture a bespoke vaccine for that variant in about 100 days, subject to regulatory approval,” a Pfizer spokeswoman said. Said. I told the Washington Post..

Dr. Matthew Lawrence, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said he was confident that boosters could be quickly developed and tested “perhaps within a few months” as needed.

What happened to the other variants?

When Delta was designated as a variant of concern in May 2021 and then Omicron was given the same label in November 2021, the other two variants were subordinate “subjects” of Lambda in Peru and Mu in Colombia. Has been raised to “Subspecies” status. Other variants, such as the “Delta Plus” found in Nepal, also attracted attention during that period. However, none of these could be promoted to a “variant of concern” because they couldn’t defeat Delta in a consistent way.

This is the most promising result for omicron. Other varieties “all had similar concerns around them, but after the initial report, they did not spread to a significant extent,” Gandhi said.

Is it reasonable to think that the United States is in a better position to deal with Omicron than Delta?

Experts generally agreed that the United States should be more prepared to fight Omicron than it was when Delta emerged earlier this year.

“We are in a much better position because of the high vaccination rate, all people over the age of 18 receiving boosters and being eligible for vaccination up to the age of 5,” Gandhi said. “Also, since July 2021, the prevalence of delta variants has led to a high proportion of innate immunity in this country. Oral antiviral therapy On the horizon. Therefore, there are tools to combat this new variant. “

According to Schaffner, the challenge is to ensure that Americans continue to be vaccinated and boosted, use tests, and maintain safe behavior in public.

“All these tools are available,” he said. “The big question is how often the average person tends to use these tools.”

Does the coronavirus exist forever like the flu?

Experts now believe that because polio was almost universally vaccinated, it is unlikely that the coronavirus will be eradicated from Earth or eliminated in the United States, as was the case with smallpox. .. The combination of rapid mutations and too low vaccination rates makes COVID-19 less likely to be transmitted following smallpox and polio.

“This is likely an influenza model, and we need to track mutations each year and change boosters accordingly,” Schaffner said. In fact, he said, efforts are already underway to create a combination of coronavirus and flu shots.

Sources

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2/ https://www.politifact.com/article/2021/nov/29/omicron-and-other-coronavirus-variants-what-you-ne/

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