As the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads in southern Africa and appears in countries around the world, scientists are watching with dismay the battle unfolding that could determine the future of the pandemic. Could the last competitor of the world’s dominant delta oust it?
Some scientists, looking at data from South Africa and the UK, suggest the omicron might be the winner.
“It’s still early days, but data is starting to come in more and more, suggesting that the omicron is likely to overtake the delta in many, if not all, locations,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who tracks options for research collaboration under by the Harvard leadership. Medical school. “Of course, this is potentially disturbing.”
But others said it was too early on Monday to know how likely the omicron would spread more efficiently than the delta, or, if it did, how quickly it could take over.
“Especially here in the US, where we are seeing significant delta jumps, if the omicron is going to replace it, I think we will know in about two weeks,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. …
Many critical questions about the omicron remain unanswered, including whether the virus causes milder or more severe disease and how much it can shy away from immunity from previous COVID-19 disease or vaccines.
In terms of distribution, scientists point to what is happening in South Africa, where the omicron was first discovered. Omicron’s speed in infecting people and achieving near-total dominance in South Africa has made health experts fear that the country is at the beginning of a new wave that could engulf hospitals.
The new variant quickly moved South Africa from a period of low transmission, averaging less than 200 new cases per day in mid-November, to over 16,000 cases per day over the weekend. Omicron is estimated to be responsible for over 90% of new cases in Gauteng province, the epicenter of the new wave. The new variant quickly spreads and becomes dominant in eight other provinces in South Africa.
“The virus is spreading extremely fast, very fast,” said Willem Hanekom, director of the African Health Research Institute. “If you look at the slopes of this wave that we are on now, it’s a much steeper slope than the first three waves that South Africa experienced. This indicates that it is spreading rapidly and therefore can be a highly transmissible virus. “
But Hanak, who is also co-chair of the South African COVID-19 Variants Research Consortium, said South Africa had such a low number of delta cases when the omicron emerged: “I don’t think we can say” that he has overtaken the delta.
Scientists say it’s unclear if the omicron will behave in the same way in other countries as in South Africa. Lemieux said there are already some hints of how he might behave; In countries like the UK, where a lot of genomic sequencing is done, he said, “we are seeing what appears to be a signal of an exponential increase in the omicron over delta.”
In the United States, as in the rest of the world, he said, “there is still a lot of uncertainty.” “But when you put the first data together, you start to see a consistent picture: this omicron is already here, and from what we’ve seen in South Africa, it is likely to become the dominant strain in the coming weeks and months. and is likely to cause a sharp increase in the number of cases. ”
What this might mean for public health remains to be seen. Hanakom said early data from South Africa show the re-infection rate of omicron is much higher than previous variants, suggesting that the virus is eluding immunity somewhat. It also shows that the virus appears to be infecting young people, mostly those who are not vaccinated, and most cases in hospitals were relatively mild.
But Binnicker said things can develop differently in other parts of the world or in different patient groups. “It will be really interesting to see what happens when more infections potentially occur in older people or people with underlying medical conditions,” he said. “What is the result of these patients?”
While the world is waiting for answers, scientists are asking people to do everything possible to protect themselves.
“We want people to have the highest possible immunity from vaccination. Therefore, if people are not vaccinated, they should get vaccinated, ”Lemieux said. “If people are eligible for boosters, they have to get boosters and then do all the other things we know are effective in reducing transmission – disguise and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings, especially without masks.”
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