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Omicron Symptoms, Cases, and Vaccine Breakout: What We Now Know

Laboratory technicians at the Gamaleya National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Russia.

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It has been two weeks since South Africa reported the omicron Covid variant to the World Health Organization and now it is spreading around the world.

Over the past fifteen weeks, experts have worked to gain a better understanding of the new, highly mutated variant, the kind of symptoms and illnesses it can cause, and whether it undermines vaccines already developed.

Day by day more and more information has emerged regarding the spread, as well as anecdotal evidence and preliminary figures, giving us a broader picture of its risk profile.

Here’s what we know so far:


As soon as the World Health Organization designated omicron a “variant of concern” on November 26 – just two days after South Africa reported it to the United Nations health agency – the hunt for cases of virus was being launched elsewhere, while mutations associated with omicron could make it more transmissible.

The US, UK and EU, among others, have responded to the omicron designation by temporarily suspending flights from southern African countries or introducing strict quarantines for anyone arriving from the region.

However, it is increasingly clear that omicron is already spreading worldwide, and there have been reports of community transmission over the past two weeks, signaling that the omicron variant has likely circulated more widely. and longer than initially thought.

The US CDC said on Tuesday that the new variant has now been found in 50 countries and 19 US states.

The first known sample of omicron dates back to November 9 and was found in South Africa. The WHO said infections in the country had risen sharply, coinciding with the detection of variant B.1.1.529, and this phenomenon is now seen elsewhere.

Genview Diagnosis medical assistants Crystal Leyva (L) and Keitia Perez administer Covid-19 sampling tests to lab technicians at Foxconn Assembly on August 13, 2021 in Houston, Texas.

Brandon Bell | Getty Images News | Getty Images

In the UK, for example, an estimated 1,000 people a day are infected with the variant and experts say it is only a matter of weeks, rather than months, before it usurps the virus. globally dominant delta variant.

Imperial College Professor Neil Ferguson, an influential epidemiologist among a cohort of experts advising the UK government on Covid, told The Times on Tuesday that early data suggests the number of omicron cases is doubling every ” three days or less “. Needless to say, government officials are worried and bracing for a potential increase in omicron cases as we enter the winter season.



Given the lingering uncertainty surrounding the Covid omicron variant, experts have been watching real-world data from South Africa closely, given that it was one of the first countries to spot the variant.

Some parts of South Africa have seen an increase in hospitalizations related to the omicron variant. A report by the South African Medical Research Council, released on Saturday, detailing the experiences of several hospitals in Gauteng province (where omicron was first detected) suggested that the strain causes milder disease, with fewer patients requiring oxygen or intensive care than seen in previous waves.

In fact, the report notes, the majority of Covid service patients observed were “accidental Covid admissions”, having been admitted to hospital for some other medical or surgical reason.

A majority of patients in Covid wards were not vaccinated and hospitals reported higher admissions of younger patients and children; age groups with lower vaccination rates (or none, as children under 12 are not vaccinated in South Africa). Hospitals reported no deaths in pediatric wards during the two weeks (Nov. 14-29) they were observed.

Experts in the region are investigating what motivated admissions among young people, who are much more likely to experience less severe Covid infections anyway.

The report also warned that “the clinical profile of admitted patients could change significantly over the next two weeks, at which time we can draw conclusions about the severity of the disease with greater precision.”

White House chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci said on Sunday preliminary data from South Africa was “encouraging” as it suggested omicron was not as bad as feared initially, but he cautioned that more data was needed to fully assess the risk posed. by the variant.

Vaccine escape

One of the biggest questions for experts, government officials and vaccine makers is whether the omicron variant could undo the work the Covid vaccines have done so far to reduce the risk of serious infection, d hospitalization and death. The CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer, who have both created widely used vaccines, said it could be weeks before they became clear on whether their injections were effective against omicron.

The first data is not so encouraging, with South African scientists saying on Tuesday that omicron significantly reduces the antibody protection generated by the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, according to a small preliminary study. Still, people who have recovered from the virus and received a booster will likely have better protection against serious illness, the study showed.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told the Wall Street Journal in an interview at the top of the newspaper’s CEO Council that he expects the number of confirmed cases of omicron to rise from tens to millions over the next few weeks, stating, “We will have a good understanding, let’s say before the end of the year as to what exactly that means for the clinical manifestation.”

Pfizer may develop a vaccine that targets omicron by March 2022, Bourla said, but it is not yet clear whether there is a need for a new vaccine. It will take a few weeks to determine whether current vaccines provide sufficient protection against the variant, he said.

Brooke Knippenberg, 6, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, United States, December 5, 2021.

Hannah Beier | Reuters


Last but not least, testing the omicron is a challenge facing health officials trying to assess the spread of the variant as quickly as possible.

When the WHO first reported the variant and named it “of concern,” the health agency noted that “this variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are of concern. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection with this variant. , compared to other VOCs. “

The WHO has noted that current Covid PCR tests continue to detect this variant, in large part thanks to a quirk in the genetic structure of the variant. “Several laboratories have indicated that for a widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene drop or S gene target failure) and therefore this test can be used as a marker for this variant, pending confirmation of sequencing, “noted the WHO.

“Using this approach, this variant was detected at faster rates than previous outbreaks of infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”

However, there are now reports of a new ‘offshoot’ of omicron that does not have the deletion that allows PCR tests to spot it, potentially making it much more difficult to track.

The omicron branch has been identified in at least seven genome sequencing cases in South Africa, Australia and Canada, according to the Financial Times, and “no longer possesses this characteristic, which means that a complete sequencing of the genome is needed to detect it. Researchers classified the first identified form of Omicron as BA.1, while the branch was labeled BA.2, “the FT reported on Tuesday.

– CNBC’s Spencer Kimball contributed reporting for this story.

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