The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly inflicted widespread damage in people of all ages from around the world for the past 2 years since it was first detected in humans in December 2019. While infections have been on the decline in all states and regions in India over the past few months, with vaccination drives in full swing, yet another variant of the coronavirus has been identified in Africa recently.
Although it is rather common for viruses to frequently undergo alterations in their structures, this particular variant, named “Omicron” by the WHO, has thus far portrayed a high rate of transmissibility i.e. the ease and ability of the virus to spread from an infected person to a healthy individual. Though further research is required to confirm if this new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is indeed significantly more transmissible or prompts serious symptoms, the sudden increase in positive cases in some countries has caused much concern and worry worldwide and this has led to the WHO designating Omicron as a Variant Of Concern (VOC).
Key Details Regarding The Omicron Variant Of Coronavirus:
What Is Omicron?
Omicron is the name given to the new variant of COVID-19 that was first detected in November 2021 in the African countries of Botswana and South Africa. With the scientific terminology being B.1.1.529, the Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), a team of virus experts at the World Health Organization (WHO), designated it as “Omicron” in keeping with the nomenclature of coronavirus variants tagged with Greek alphabets.
Moreover, the TAG-VE team at the WHO declared Omicron as a Variant of Concern (VOC) on November 26, 2021, after COVID-positive cases surged in parts of Africa and the new variant was even found in people travelling from those regions to European countries and Hong Kong, upon testing done at international airports.
Why Has Omicron Been Termed A Variant Of Concern?
While a considerable amount of in-depth research is still needed to conclusively state if Omicron has a higher rate of transmissibility than other variants of concern (VOC), such as the delta strain, preliminary scientific studies show that this new variant of the coronavirus has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein. Some of the modifications in the structural sequences of Omicron overlap with other variants of concern such as Beta and Delta, but more studies need to be conducted to determine if they pose a higher risk of severe symptoms and faster spread of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, an alarming rise in positive cases has been reported by health officials in some African countries, with travellers from those regions having tested positive in parts of Europe and Asia as well. Hence, the WHO, upon assessing the initial data available about Omicron, which states a possibility of the new variant posing an increased risk of reinfection when compared to other VOCs and the mutations in its spike protein capable of providing it with a higher invasive and growth advantage in the host human body, has declared Omicron as a variant of concern.
How Can The Spread Of COVID-19 Due To Omicron Be Prevented?
Like with previous instances of steep rises in COVID-19 positive cases, the spread of COVID-19 due to Omicron can also be contained with some preventive measures. While RT-PCR testing has already been mandated for all international passengers and incoming flights from Africa in almost all states in India, travel restrictions have also been imposed for people flying out of Botswana and South Africa.
Furthermore, adhering to COVID-appropriate protocols whenever in public places with small or large crowds, such as wearing face masks, using hand sanitizers and maintaining social distancing are the most effective ways to prevent contracting COVID-19 infection. Getting vaccinated is also requisite to halt the rampant transmission of COVID-19. Additionally, avoiding unnecessary travel for now until more definitive information about Omicron is available, particularly long-distance by flights, is recommended, to curtail the spread of the coronavirus disease.