Syringes are seen in front of a displayed stock graph in the illustration taken on November 27, 2021. Following reports of the discovery of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, stock markets crashed and several countries imposed a ban on flights from southern Africa. Image Credit: Reuters

Mutations, they make the new coronavirus variant dangerous. Omicron has an “extremely high number” of mutations — much more than any other variant — and that has sparked grave concern worldwide. Many countries have imposed restrictions on flights from southern African countries where the B.1.1.529 variant was first found, and world markets took a battering on Friday over fears of more infections and travel disruptions.

The variant has 32 mutations on the spike protein, the part of the coronavirus which plays a crucial role in infections. As most vaccines target the spike protein, scientists are worried that the virus could evade immunity. The “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern”, Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, posted on a genome-sharing website, suggesting that it has the potential to become a dominant strain.

Although it should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile, it may turn out to be an odd cluster that is not very transmissible, he tweeted. “I hope that’s the case,” Peacock added.

Here’s what we know about the new strain.

What’s the new variant and its origins?

The B.1.1.529, named Omicron by the World Health Organisation, is the new variant first found in southern Africa. Which country? That’s not clear.

Although Omicron was initially linked to Gauteng province in South Africa, the variant did not necessarily originate there, the Guardian said, adding that the earliest sample showing the variant was collected in Botswana on November 11. But the WHO said the “first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November.”

What are the mutations of Omicron?

According to the WHO, the new variant contains mutations identified in all four variants of concern (Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma) and three variants of interest (Kappa, Eta and Lambda).

There are around 50 mutations in Omicron, and more than 30 of them are in the spike protein, which interacts with human cell walls before entry, according to Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities.

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the Warwick Medical School in the United Kingdom, said in a statement: “It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date. This variant carries some changes we’ve seen previously in other variants but never all together in one virus. It also has novel mutations.”

How dangerous is the B.1.1.529 strain?

Scientists consider it dangerous since there are at least 30 modifications to the spike protein, which allows the coronavirus to enter the human cells. The variant is new and has not been thoroughly studied. Its increased infectiousness is speculation right now. So far, there are no signs that the variant causes a more severe disease.

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has,” Maria van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said, adding the variant is “under monitoring”.

Do more mutations mean increased transmissibility?

A high number of mutations need not make a variant more transmissible. When a South Africa variant known as C.1.2 emerged in August, there were significant worries, but it was not listed as a variant of interest or concern. Some experts in Japan believe that the notable slump in cases in the country is due to mutations that must have driven the coronavirus towards “natural extinction”.

The unprecedented number of mutations might work against the Omicron and make it ‘unstable’, the MailOnline said, quoting scientists. An unstable virus is unlikely to become widespread. But this has not been established yet.

“It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage. For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analysed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future,” Francois Balloux, the director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said.

How will Omicron impact vaccines and COVID therapies?

It’s too early to know that. There are fewer than 100 whole genomic sequences of the new strain available, according to the WHO. It takes time to compare it to other strains and its effect on COVID vaccines.

But scientists feel that the high number of mutations on the spike protein will allow the strain to evade the antibodies created by the human immune response system. Vaccines will almost certainly be less effective against the Omicron variant, James Naismith, a structural biologist from the University of Oxford, told the BBC. But he said that the vaccines will still be quite effective. “It is bad news but it’s not doomsday,” Naismith added.

Scientists expect antiviral drugs, such as Merck’s pill, to work well against the new variant because they do not target the spike protein — they work by stopping the virus from replicating, the Guardian said. However, the mutations could allow the new variant to resist antibody treatments such as those developed by Regeneron, according to the New Scientist, which quoted Wendy Barclay at Imperial College London saying, “That is really a cause for concern.”

How will it affect me?

Right now, there’s no cause alarm for fully vaccinated people. There has been no evidence so far to suggest that it can evade antibodies generated as a result of vaccination. But scientists say it has the potential to dodge antibodies since the mutations are in the spike protein, which is targeted by the human body’s immune response.

Although vaccinations have not been effective against all strains, it has prevented deaths, hospitalisation and reduced the severity of infections. That could be the case against Omicron also.

What should I do?

People should continue to follow the COVID safety protocol of social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing. These measures are still very effective. And vaccination will be a huge help.

Why is Omicron a variant of concern?

“Omicron, or B.1.1.529, is named as a variant of concern because it has some concerning properties,” WHO’s Van Kerkhove said in a video published on Twitter. “This variant has a large number of mutations, and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics.”

The WHO’s announcement is significant: The “variant of concern” label is given to strains whose mutations could make the virus more contagious or could make vaccinations less effective.

Some earlier variants have not lived up to the initial alarm. But the Omicron variant has more than 50 mutations, more than half of them on the virus’ spike protein, the key target of vaccines and subsequent antibodies.

Where did the Omicron strain come from?

Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said a large number of mutations suggest that Omicron may have evolved during a chronic infection in a person with a weakened immune system, possibly an untreated HIV/Aids patient.

South Africa has 8.2 million people infected with HIV, the most in the world, Bloomberg reported, adding that the beta variant identified last year in South Africa also may have come from an HIV-infected person.

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Which countries are affected?

Around 100 cases have been detected until Thursday in South Africa, where 90 per cent of 1,100 new cases reported in the Gauteng province are the new variant, according to Tulio de Oliveira of Stellenbosch University. Early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest the variant may be present in South Africa’s other eight provinces.

In neighbouring Botswana, four cases were recorded on Monday. Hong Kong detected two cases — one a man who flew in from South Africa and a person in quarantine. There are seven suspected cases in Israel and a confirmed case — a person who arrived from Malawi. Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Britain and Australia are among the countries where the Omicron cases have been found.

What the experts say

Sharon Peacock of the University of Cambridge said the data so far suggest the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility” but added that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known”.

“Of all the variants we have seen to date, this is probably the greatest public health concern we’ve had,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, said. “It could evade some or all of the immunity we have from previous infections and vaccines. We just don’t know,” Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying.

US infectious disease chief Dr Anthony Fauci told CNN that while the reports on the new variant threw up a red flag, it was possible that vaccines might still work to prevent serious illness.

The variant is the “most worrying we’ve seen,” said Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the UK Health and Security Agency. “There’s mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evade the immune response both from vaccines and from natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility.”