What is a new variant?

Viruses have one aim: to survive and propagate- which they can only do by invading host tissues as they lack the “machinery” to replicate on their own. With this in mind, viruses constantly change to form new “variants.”

Some variants emerge and disappear, some persist. Variants which allow a virus to spread more easily or to evade treatment or vaccination are termed “variants of concern.”

Background to Omicron

On the 24th November 2021 (only 2 weeks ago!) a new variant of then SARSCoV2 virus (B.1.1.529, named Omicron) was reported to the World Health Organization. Only two days later it was declared as a “variant of concern.”

Within 2 weeks, the Omicron variant has become the dominant variant circulating throughout most of South Africa.

Is Omicron more catchy?

We are awaiting more data, but at this stage it seems that Omicron is even more transmissible than Delta. It seems to have arrived as a tsunami rather than a gentle wave.

Is Omicron associated with more severe illness?

No- from what we have seen the illness caused by Omicron is not more severe than previous variants- and seems milder than Delta, with no major surge in hospitalization rates yet. It is early days though.

Common symptoms include fevers, headaches, cold-like symptoms and body-aches, both in adults and children.

Does previous infection with other variants provide protection?

Not complete protection at all- we are seeing a high rate of reinfection even in those who experienced beta or delta variants.

Do our current vaccines hold up against Omicron?

Partly yes, and likely excellent protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death. But protection against “catching” the new variant and mild disease are NOT complete. Studies suggest that 3 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have much better protection than 2 doses (source: CDC, AAAAI)